Foreign Relations Committee exhibits leadership on the Syrian crisis

As winter has turned to spring in Washington, it is rare for a congressional committee hearing to be feisty or passionate on a subject that isn’t about Obamacare.  Watching hearings on C-SPAN or viewing them inside the House and Senate office buildings can often turn into dreary, sometimes boring, experiences that are free of fireworks.  This sentiment can turn to outright frustration if the hearing extends over the three-hour limit, and nothing new or insightful comes out of the process.

However, for those who monitor developments in the U.S. Congress closely, last week was a welcome exception to that rule. 

On Wednesday, March 26, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened another meeting about U.S. policy in the Syrian civil war—fourteen of which have been held since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011—in order to assess where America stands and what it can do to ease the suffering of millions of Syrians inside and outside of the warzone.  Normally, the hearing would produce nothing unusual—perhaps a familiar refrain about President Obama’s red-line on the use of chemical weapons or a plea from a senator about the need to better address the humanitarian calamity that has torn the entire country apart.

Last week’s hearing, though, was anything but ordinary.  Instead of the typical talking points and the usual questions that witnesses would normally receive, the majority of the members that were present were as animated as they were disgusted about what they see as a lackluster U.S. policy on the war. 

Quickly following the opening remarks of the hearings two witnesses, Assistant Secretary Anne Patterson and Assistant Secretary Thomas Countryman, Chairman Robert Menendez (D – N.J.) led off with complaints that his committee was not being fully informed about what the administration’s policy actually is.  Upon a cautious answer by Assistant Secretary Patterson on the need to go into a classified session on possible military options that the Obama administration was considering, Menendez fired back, arguing that a closed session would be about as helpful as reading the morning newspaper. 

“I have a problem,” Menendez said, “of a generic answer to a generic question that I can’t believe is classified.  I go to these classified hearings and sometimes I listen to a hearing that in my view should never have been classified.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R – Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the committee, was even more forceful in his critique—repeatedly arguing that the White House has no policy on the Syrian conflict other than trying to stop the killing from spreading into Syria’s neighbors.  “What is our strategy in Syria?” Corker asked.  “I don’t see we have one other than letting people kill each other off, allowing it [the violence] to fester.”  Corker continued, “We have no strategy in Syria.  We haven’t had a strategy in Syria from day one.”

The strong remarks from Menendez and Corker should not be seen as publicity stunts in front of the television cameras or opportunities to get their faces on the news.  Rather, both men seemed genuinely stymied by what the White House is trying to accomplish in Syria, and sincerely angry about the lack of progress in pushing out Bashar al-Assad.  And none of this should be of any surprise; of all of the committees in the Congress who have delved into the Syrian issue over the past three years, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been by far the most active and productive in trying to change the battlefield asymmetry to the benefit of the moderate Syrian armed opposition. 

In May 2013, the committee passed on an overwhelming bipartisan 15-3 vote the “Syrian Transition Support Act,” a piece of legislation that would have authorized the President of the United States to “provide defense articles, defense services, and military training to specific members of the Syrian Supreme Military Council…and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad.”  Four months later, after the worst chemical weapons attack in a quarter-century, the committee again deliberated and passed on a bipartisan vote the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria—a resolution that was officially rendered moot after Washington and Moscow struck a deal with the Assad regime on the removal and destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile and infrastructure. 

And in just the month of March, members of the Foreign Relations Committee have continued their activism.  On March 13, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a resolution that would require the Obama administration to submit to Congress a comprehensive strategy on how the U.S. is addressing the humanitarian catastrophe currently unfolding in Syria.  To top it all off, senior lawmakers from both parties—including the chairmen and ranking members of the Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services Committees—drafted a letter to the White House a day later, pleading for a “reexamination of U.S. policy in Syria,” including the possibility of additional support to the moderate anti-Assad opposition.

Whether or not the administration is, in fact, reviewing their Syria policy is known only to those select few who have the privilege of being close to President Obama and national security staff.  But what is abundantly clear is that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, time and again, has managed to come together on one of the most serious foreign policy crises that the world faces today.  In an era where Americans expect rapid partisanship on every issue, this is a fresh change—even if many Americans do not buy the argument for greater U.S. involvement.

DePetris is an independent consultant and Middle East analyst for Wikistrat, Inc, a geopolitical consulting firm.  The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

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