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Syria

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. LEVIN. Mr. President, I thank, first of all, the Senator from Arizona for the leadership he has taken on the question of Syria. In answer to the question, to the best of my ability, at least, it would not be the first time Russia has taken an inconsistent position. What I am hoping is that the additional military pressure on Asad, which we are all calling for this morning, would help put pressure on Russia to understand, if that military pressure is forthcoming, that they should participate in the political solution. I do not know that we can stop them, as much as we would all wish to, from taking the inconsistent position that they have, but I believe--and I think the Senator from Arizona would probably agree, but he can speak for himself, obviously--that if President Obama does as we are urging him to do, which is find a way to put additional military pressure on Asad, that would be an important sign to Russia that: OK, join in a solution. You participated enough in the problem already. Join in the solution.

They are inconsistent. But I think our goal of trying to get more military pressure on Asad is very consistent with the idea that maybe there will be a political solution, but if there is, it will be promoted by military pressure on Asad and his understanding of that fact.

The worsening situation in Syria and the snowballing plight of millions in the region requires a response.

Since nonviolent demonstrations demanding democratic change began in Syria in March of 2011, Bashar Asad and his clique of supporters have unleashed a massacre that has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 Syrians, displaced more than 4 million people across a region that already suffers from a massive refugee population, sparked a civil war with a multitude of divergent ethnic groups and religious sects, and placed the security of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile--which is one of the world's largest--at risk of falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

Despite the impact of this horrific campaign, Asad's commitment to continuing the fight appears unwavering. One must look no further than the increasingly indiscriminate tactics with which he conducts his campaign. In recent months, in addition to Asad's possible use of chemical weapons, he has increased his reliance on airstrikes, Scud missiles, rockets, mortar shells, and artillery to terrorize and to kill civilians.

Asad's ability to conduct this campaign is enabled by two actors--Iran and Russia. Iran's financial, personnel, and materiel support have been critical to ensuring Asad's military remains operable and that the impact of defections is mitigated with reinforcements. Russia's support to Syria's more advanced military weaponry, most notably air defense systems, is critical to Asad's continued ability to project power into areas of the country he no longer controls.

To add further complexity to the situation, al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida offshoot, continues to spread its influence in some areas of Syria. Its presence is of concern and countering its spread needs to be a priority. It is also critical that we ensure that countries in the region that are seeking to force an end to the Asad regime are not enabling and enhancing the capabilities of violent extremists who will ultimately turn their weapons on moderate Syrians and on religious minorities in Syria, such as the Syrian Christians.

The combination of these circumstances in Syria demonstrates that the status quo is unacceptable and that time is not on our side. Many officials in Washington share this sentiment but in the same breath remind us that the situation in Syria is complex, volatile, and asymmetric; Syria's Government institutions are crumbling, which could create a dangerous vacuum; any action by the United States or the West, even if it is with our Arab partners, risks significant escalation; and that any security vacuum could be filled by Islamist extremists.

I have supported, and I will continue to support, the President's contributions to provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people throughout the region, as well as the additional assistance he has pledged to Jordan to help with the devastating impact of this conflict on that country.

But it is essential that the United States, working with our allies in the region, step up the military pressure on the Asad regime--of course, doing so in a carefully thought out and regionally supported way.

Certainly, there are significant challenges to any plan of action in Syria. But we not only have to figure out the consequences of any action, we also have to figure out the consequences of not taking additional actions. In my view, the facts on the ground make the consequences of inaction too great, and it is time for the United States and our allies to use ways to alter the course of events in Syria by increasing the military pressure on Asad until he can see that his current course is not sustainable.

Taking steps to add military pressure on Asad will also provide backing to Secretary Kerry's efforts to bring the Russians into the dialog politically, which is aimed at leading to Asad's departure. I commend Secretary Kerry for his efforts to bring Russia into that dialog.

At the same time, of course, we condemn Russia's support for the Asad regime. I happen to feel very strongly that even though we are condemning, and should condemn, Russia's support for the Asad regime, it is still in our interest that Russia participate in putting pressure on Asad politically to depart, if Secretary Kerry can possibly do so.

I have joined Senator McCain recently in writing to President Obama, urging the President to consider supporting a number of efforts, including the creation by Turkey of a safe zone inside Syria along its border, the deployment of our Patriot batteries closer to that border in order to protect populations in that safe zone and to neutralize any Syrian planes that threaten it and also to provide weapons to vetted elements of the opposition in Syria. These actions--raising the military pressure on Asad--will send the critical message to Asad that he is going to go one way or the other.

The Armed Services Committee, which I chair, recently held an open hearing on the situation in Syria and the Defense Department's efforts to plan for a full range of possible options to respond to the contingencies in Syria. Our committee is set to receive a classified briefing on Syria next week. I intend to raise these issues with our witnesses at that briefing. I know Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others are also going to forcefully raise these issues with those witnesses at that briefing and to urge them to carry the message back to the administration that it is time to up the military pressure on Asad.

I thank Senator McCain and others who are participating in this discussion.

I yield the floor.

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