Hearing Wrap-Up: Next Steps to Mitigate the Crisis in Syria

May 18, 2016

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on how the United States can address the growing security and humanitarian crisis in Syria.  The panel consisted of Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute; Nancy Lindborg, President of the United States Institute of Peace; and Tamara Coffman Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The Foreign Policy Initiative believes that the following quotations from the panelists’ prepared testimony will be helpful for policymakers, lawmakers, and the general public understand the gravity of the situation in the Middle East as well as the magnitude of effort that is required to resolve it.

The Administration’s Failed Approach

“President Obama’s initial read of the Syrian conflict as holding only narrow implications for American interests was a signal failure to learn the lessons of the post-Cold War period… The experience of the 1990s clearly suggested how a neglected civil war offered easy opportunities for a violent jihadist movement—just as the Afghanistan war did for the Taliban in the mid-1990s—and how large-scale refugee flows would destabilize Syria’s neighbors, including key U.S. security partners like Jordan and Turkey.” – Tamara Wittes

“Unfortunately, the realistic policy options available to the United States have narrowed considerably since 2012, the violence is entrenched, the spillover is creating serious challenges for the neighborhood and for Europe, and the number of actors engaged directly in the Syrian conflict has proliferated. All of this means that the continuation of the Syrian civil war has direct and dire consequences today, not just for regional order, but for international security.” – Tamara Wittes

“The American strategy has always been to get to a negotiated solution between Syrians. I think that makes sense, but we’ve never had tactics to achieve that strategy. And it’s very clear to me that unless there is a great deal more military pressure on Bashar al-Assad he will not make more substantial compromises.” – Robert Ford

The State of the Crisis

“[W]ithout greater military pressure on the Syrian government it will not negotiate a compromise political settlement. The difference in tone between President Assad’s public remarks of late last July, when he was sober about defeats, and his upbeat tone in public remarks this spring after the Russian intervention are striking. The Russian intervention thus hindered prospects of a negotiated deal. The United States, meanwhile, lacks leverage with the armed opposition because it – and its regional backers – view us as inconsistent at best.” – Robert Ford

“[T]he Assad government and its patrons in Tehran and Moscow have no interest in a sustained cease-fire, because the battleground dynamics continue to shift in their favor. They used the partial cease-fires of the past weeks to consolidate territorial gains from opposition forces and to further weaken those forces through continued air attacks. Without agreement amongst the various governments around the table as to which fighting groups constitute terrorist organizations, a ceasefire will inevitably disadvantage opposition factions as the Assad regime targets them in the name of counterterrorism. That will likewise advantage the most extreme among the rebel factions as well as jihadi groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, who will all continue to use force to acquire and hold territory and to force their political opponents and inconvenient civilians off the field.” – Tamara Wittes

“Al Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has particularly benefited from the war’s continuation, from the weakness and partiality of the ceasefires negotiated earlier this year, and from the inability of the U.S.-Russian diplomatic process to generate any progress toward a political transition. Shrewdly, Nusra has focused on building its reputation as the most consistent, and most effective, military opponent of the Assad regime, and on its readiness to cooperate with anti-Assad factions with whom it has other, ideological and political, disagreements.” – Tamara Wittes

The Humanitarian Toll

“The numbers associated with the Syrian crisis have become a grim litany of steadily increasing statistics throughout the past five years. Currently, the UN estimates 11.3 million Syrians are displaced, which is roughly equivalent to all the residents of Ohio being forced from their homes. Of those, 6.5 million are displaced within Syria and another 4.8 million have fled the country as refugees. Overall, 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and of those, 4.6 million live in areas that are hard to reach. Grimmest of all is the climbing death figure, now believed by some to be between 400,000 and 470,000 deaths.” – Nancy Lindborg

“The Syrian-American Medical Society has documented 161 chemical weapon attacks leading to the deaths of 1,491 people and more than 14,000 injuries.” – Nancy Lindborg

The Regional Impact

“In Lebanon, which is hosting an estimated 1.07 million Syrian refugees, nearly one in four people is now Syrian. (If one in four Americans were a refugee, the United States would face the unimaginable equivalent of hosting the populations of California, Texas and Illinois combined.) …  “Similarly, Jordan struggles to cope with more than 628,000 Syrian refugees.” – Nancy Lindborg

“The conflict in Syria has had a profound impact on the lives of average citizens throughout the region. In many cases, towns have doubled or tripled in size; housing prices have increased, schools are operating at double shift, and communities--already poor themselves--are stretched to accommodate a refugee population that continues to expand.” – Nancy Lindborg

Mission Statement

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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