I join the Chairman in welcoming our distinguished witnesses and appreciate their testimony as we continue to consider policy options toward Syria.
Since our last hearing in April, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has carried out further horrific killings of innocent civilians, has reportedly used aircraft and helicopter gunships to attack cities, and has made chilling threats to use chemical and biological weapons to oppose any foreign military intervention.
We have witnessed Syria's descent into a civil war, with the cost in lives now exceeding 19,000. Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Some senior Syrian diplomats and military officers have defected rather than continue to associate themselves with Assad's atrocities. A bombing by rebel forces killed three senior military figures within Assad's inner circle last month.
We have little reason today to be hopeful for a political settlement. For a third time, UN Security Council efforts to address the crisis have been stymied by Russian and Chinese intransigence. The UN observer mission has been drawn down.
We have seen reports of the growing presence of terrorist and jihadist elements in Syria attempting to take advantage of the chaos. Meanwhile, opposition forces and political groups -- though coordinating more -- still remain divided. This raises concerns that the divisions within the opposition are precursor to what we might expect in a post-Assad political environment.
We remain hopeful that this bloody conflict will ultimately yield to a political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. The way forward, however, is far from clear and is characterized by significant threats. I remain concerned about the creation of new space in Syria for terrorist groups and the security of the country's stockpiles of unconventional weapons. The risk that sectarian conflict in Syria could spread is very real, and events on the ground will affect Syria's neighbors -- including our close ally Israel.
Although Assad's departure anytime soon is far from certain, we should be preparing for what or who is likely to emerge after him. The United States must continue to work to limit regional consequences stemming from the Syrian conflict. We also must focus intelligence and counter-proliferation assets on containing the Syrian chemical and biological weapons threat. We should be ready to respond quickly to opportunities to help safeguard these stockpiles in a post-Assad environment.
More broadly, we should recognize that our ability to manufacture a predictable outcome to this crisis is extremely limited. Intervention scenarios in Syria come with risks of unintended consequences. We should be skeptical about actions that could lead the United States to an expensive military commitment in Syria.
I thank the witnesses and look forward to our discussion.