By Jeremy Herb
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said Wednesday that the United States must “proceed with extreme caution” in Syria, where violence continues to rise as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues an assault on opposition forces.
The committee’s ranking member, Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), echoed Kerry, saying that “attempts by the United States or the West to closely manage the opposition could backfire in an environment where the government blames outside influences for Syria’s troubles.”
“While not taking any options off the table, we should be extremely skeptical about actions that could commit the United States to military options in Syria,” Lugar said.
The senators’ comments at a Thursday hearing with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford highlighted the difficulties the Obama administration faces as it decides what path to pursue to try to remove Assad from power.
The administration has said it wants a political solution in Syria that leads to Assad relinquishing power, but has opposed giving arms to the opposition forces.
A Friends of Syria group of 60 nations, including the United States, passed a resolution last month to take steps against Assad, as well as $10 million in humanitarian aid.
A stronger resolution from the United Nations Security Council was vetoed by China and Russia.
Assad has not let up attacks against the opposition forces, and Syrian tanks moved into the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, forcing the rebels to withdraw, Reuters reported.
Kerry reiterated the Obama administration’s statements that the Assad regime will not stand, but added that the “longer the endgame, the messier the aftermath.”
“The prospect of a full-fledged sectarian civil war is a stark reminder that a terrible situation could become still much worse,” Kerry said.
Kerry said that one of the biggest issues with Syria is that serious questions remain about the different opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, which have not unified.
Ford said the different opposition organizations makes Syria more complex than other conflicts, like Libya.
“They talk to each other, sometimes they coordinate, but they are not organically linked,” Ford said of the two biggest opposition groups.
Lugar asked Ford and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman what would happen after Assad left power, questioning whether a democracy could emerge.
“The general prediction I see is that Assad might go, but the chaos that might ensue could be horrible,” Lugar said.
Feltman said U.S. policy is designed to try to accelerate the end of Assad’s regime, but said he did not know when that would come.
“We don’t have any magic bullets,” Feltman said. “The longer this goes on, the deeper the sectarian divisions, the higher risk of long-term sectarian conflict. We want to see this happen earlier.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) questioned the motivations of the opposition forces, saying that a classified intelligence briefing Wednesday was “night and day” compared to how Ford and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman were describing the situation in Syria Thursday.
“When we talk about the opposition groups, we ask, ‘OK, what are these guys fighting for?' ” Corker said. “The word democracy never comes up.”
Ford said he disagreed with Corker about the level of support for democracy, though he acknowledged that the opposition was divided with different visions after Assad. “The public statements from senior figures in the Free Syrian Army, they speak about supporting a democratic state,” Ford said. “We don’t know yet what they would do if they were in power.”
This story was updated at 12:11 p.m.