FPI Bulletin: House Panel to Debate Obama’s Syria Policy

July 17, 2013

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will hold a hearing today to examine President Obama’s response to the Syrian civil war, with testimony from Frederic C. Hof, a former special representative on Syria in the State Department under Obama, and Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under Bush.  This hearing will give congressional lawmakers an important opportunity to assess the dangers posed by the Syrian conflict, and the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s efforts to hasten the end of the Assad regime.

The Syrian Crucible:  A Tyrant, Terror, and Chemical Weapons

For decades, the United States has fought to prevent three critical threats:  the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by rogue regimes, the emergence of safe havens for terrorists in failed states, and terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction.  Today in Syria, we see the confluence of all these dangers.

First, Assad’s use of chemical weapons has set a dangerous precedent.  The Syrian dictator has gradually escalated his campaign of indiscriminate terror against his own people, employing ever more deadly weapons over time.  It is difficult to say which is worse—that Assad’s strategy, which now includes the use of chemical weapons, is criminal, or that it has succeeded at stalling the rebellion without incurring any meaningful response from the international community.

The Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons with impunity may provide a blueprint to other rogue regimes that would pursue or use weapons of mass destruction.  Indeed, if the United States is unwilling to decisively respond to a clear-cut case of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, then how likely is it to respond to the more difficult case of potential Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon?

Second, the longer the Syrian conflict persists, the more it becomes a magnet for Islamist terrorists of all stripes.  The Assad regime has benefited not only from the economic and military support of Iran and arms sales from Russia, but also from foreign fighters sent by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’a terrorist group based in Lebanon.  Indeed, thousands of Hezbollah’s fighters contributed to in Assad’s victory at al-Qusayr, a strategically-located town near the Lebanese border, and are now working together in the central province of Homs.

At the same time, entities within Saudi Arabia and Qatar have financially and militarily backed Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist extremists groups that are fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, but now also targeting moderate rebel leaders.  More recently, the Pakistani Taliban reportedly sent forces to Syria, with the hope of expanding its ties with al-Qaeda operatives in the country.  Although Islamist extremists represent a minority in the anti-Assad resistance—likely fewer than 1,000 out of the 50,000 rebel fighters, according to one expert analyst—their access to international support has allowed them to play a disproportionate role in the rebellion.

The longer the Syrian conflict drags on, the more the cancer of terrorist extremism will metastasize on both sides of the struggle.

Third, there is a real danger that Hezbollah or al-Qaeda-aligned extremists could gain control of some of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons.  In June 2013, a senior official in the White house reiterated that a key U.S. objective is to prevent not only the Assad regime’s movement and use of chemical weapons, but also to prevent the regime’s loss of control of these weapons.

News reports suggest that the U.S. military is working with Syria’s neighbors to prepare a response if and when the Assad regime loses control of its chemical weapons.  Nonetheless, America’s allies and partners are becoming increasingly alarmed about this contingency.  Israel has bombed the Assad regime several times to prevent Hezbollah from getting access to advanced weaponry, and remains on guard against the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on chemical weapons.  Moreover, the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released an annual report last week that cited the “growing concern about the risks around extremist groups in Syria gaining access to regime stocks of chemical weapons,” and called it the “the most worrying emerging terrorist threat.”

In addition to the growing nexus of chemical weapons and Islamist terrorists, Syria’s humanitarian crisis is turning into a security and stability crisis for U.S. allies and partners.  The United Nations estimates that over 93,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011, while nearly one third of Syria’s 21 million people have fled their homes, and 1.75 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries.  In particular: 

  • The approximately 487,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan now account for nearly 10 percent of that country’s population.  In particular, the Zaatari refugee camp houses over 145,000 refugees—making it, in effect, the Hashemite Kingdom’s fourth largest city.  Already facing economic difficulties, Jordan is struggling mightily to absorb rising costs associated with sheltering the influx of refugees.
  • Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, is now home to over 412,000 Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations.  Ankara has been praised for its “open door policy” of accepting Syrian refugees, but Turkish officials now believe the financial cost of doing so will soon surpass the $1 billion mark.

Towards a More Effective U.S. Policy on Syria

As the Syrian civil war has spiraled increasingly out of control, President Obama has relied primarily on international diplomacy and economic sanctions to pressure Assad to step down.  Although the United States has provided some humanitarian aid and non-lethal support to anti-Assad rebels, it has refrained from directly vetting and arming moderate members of the Syrian resistance—let alone using American and allied airpower to decisively shift the military balance on the ground.  Instead, the Obama administration has outsourced efforts to arm Syrian rebels to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have often funded immoderate and even extremist groups.

It is now clear that President Obama’s approach has not deterred the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.  It has not prevented the influx of Shi’a and Sunni terrorists into the Syrian civil war.  It has not minimized the risk that terrorists might get their hands on chemical weapons.  And it has not quelled the refugee crisis that risks destabilizing Syria’s neighbors.

General Salim Idriss, head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command (SMC), has pleaded with U.S. officials to supply arms and ammunition, enabling moderate elements of the Syrian resistance to better defend themselves against not just Assad and Hezbollah forces, but also al-Qaeda-aligned foreign fighters.  Indeed, the Free Syrian Army recently declared war against al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria after gunmen from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant killed one of the SMC’s field commanders.  Despite these developments, however, it appears that the White House has yet to fulfill its June 13th decision to increase the “scope and scale” of assistance—including direct “military support”—to the Syrian opposition.  Indeed, news reports suggest that the United States has not yet made any significant arms transfers to vetted rebels.

Leading lawmakers have urged the United States to take even more decisive actions against the Assad regime.  To cite a recent example, the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 (H.R. 1960) expressly recognizes the importance of U.S. enforcement of red lines in Syria, requiring the Defense Department to brief Congress on what is required to carry out a fuller spectrum of policy options, and also authorizing the U.S. military to train and equip partners in the Middle East for WMD response.

Meanwhile, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for plans to use U.S. and allied airpower against the Syrian dictatorship:  “Such plans could include options for limited, targeted strikes at Assad’s apparatus of terror, including his airpower and artillery, coordinated with the actions of the Syrian opposition on the ground.  Such strikes could degrade Assad’s military capabilities and bring some relief to the embattled Syrian people.”  Senator Levin added:  “Even the announcement of a coordinated planning process for increased support to the Syrian opposition would show Assad and his Russian allies the serious purpose of a broad international coalition, boost the morale of the Free Syrian Army, and advance our limited goal of bringing about a political solution.”  Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), as well as Bob Casey (D-PA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and others, have also called for the use of U.S. and allied airpower against the Assad regime.


At the House Armed Services Committee hearing today, lawmakers will have the opportunity to bring much-needed clarity to the debate over U.S. policy towards the conflict in Syria.  Indeed, the United States has powerful interests not only in seeing an end to the Assad regime, but also precisely how the Syrian dictatorship ends, and what comes afterwards.  However, it is unlikely to secure any of those interests without decisive American leadership on Syria.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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