Policy & Strategy

Senators urge caution on Syria

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.

{mosads}Other senators, particularly John McCain (R-Ariz.) and
Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have been pushing for the United States and the international
community to do more to help the Syrian opposition fight the Assad regime,
including providing arms to the rebels. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will testify on Syria next week in the Senate Armed Services Committee, a hearing McCain had called for.

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

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

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.

Tags Bob Corker John Kerry John McCain

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