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Hearing of Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy Toward the Evolving Situation in Syria


Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, today delivered the following opening statement during the panel's hearing entitled "Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy Toward the Evolving Situation in Syria."

"Thank you Mr. Chairman. I think it's worth considering how far U.S. policy has moved in the right direction since late July when we met with Obama Administration officials to discuss the situation in Syria and Iran.

Back in July the central policy questions regarding Syria were when would the United States finally and explicitly call for Bashar al-Assad to step down, when would we finally impose the sanctions available to us, and when would American leadership work to move the international community to recognize and respond to the vast horror of the Assad regime's oppression.

The answer to those was questions came in August when the Obama Administration moved decisively on all three elements. Later than some of us wished, but with more effect than many expected. The international sanctions organized by the Administration in consultation with allies in Europe and with Turkey, together with subsequent sanctions by the Arab League, have made clear that the Assad regime's days are numbered.

The Assad gang's rule, which has been characterized at home by unparalleled brutality and endemic corruption, and abroad by support for Iranian hegemony, the subversion of Lebanon's independence, state support for terrorism against Israel, and illicit efforts at nuclear proliferation, is doomed and deservedly so.

Clearly, the people of Syria have embraced their fundamental right to determine not only who will govern Syria, but the form of that government as well. We wish for them what we desire for ourselves: a democratic government circumscribed by law, accountable to the public and bound to respect the fundamental rights of the people from whom its powers are derived.

In Syria today there are sharp divisions between ethnicities and religions, between believers in non-violence and proponents of violent resistance to tear down the Assad regime. There are splits between internal activists and external dissidents, between Army defectors and civil society leaders.

I would say to all those Syrians distraught by the lack of unity and common purpose, welcome to the wonderful world of democratic self-government.

Your freedom will not come easily and certainly not without as great a struggle to create a common front as in throwing off the Assad tyranny.

And it won't get easier. It won't. Self-government is the hardest form of government and the most complex. But if you want simple and easy, stick with what you've got. Bashar al-Assad and his piggish band of crooks, killers and torturers of children will gladly go back to the way things were.

As we in the United States contemplate the end of the Assad regime, events in other parts of the region are giving many here some pause in their enthusiasm. The Syrians who replace the Assad tyranny may not be Jeffersonian democrats. As in other Arab countries, the most politically coherent and well-organized forces in Syrian society are apt to be those organized around their religious beliefs. These men and women are not likely to consider themselves our natural allies. This fact does not necessarily imply that they are, or need to be our enemies.

In the years to come, a great experiment will likely take place throughout the Middle East to determine whether Islamic and democratic norms can comfortably co-exist. Some may doubt it.

It often seems to me that many of those most insistent that the conflict between mosque and state is irreconcilable seem to also be among the most enthusiastic when it comes to lowering the wall between church and state here in America. Perhaps they know something the rest of us don't.

But I believe there is reason for hope as well. Democratic norms that are won by people who have championed these principles in their own voices, and who have won their freedom with their own courage, may prove difficult to set aside, in the Middle East as much as anywhere else.

Moreover, we see in a number of other Islamic nations outside of the Arab world the development of governments that while not perfect, are recognizably legitimate, democratic and bound by the rule of law.

Just as we cannot assume success, it would be equally unwise to assume that the Arab revolutions cannot ultimately flower into democratic forms. These new Arab governments will likely take different forms than we would desire for ourselves, but may still remain legitimate and acceptable to their owners. It is, at any rate, too soon to tell.

Our role in these momentous events is to lend what aid we prudently can and to remain consistent advocates of the truths declared to the world on July 4, 1776: that all people are born free and equal; that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that each of us is endowed with inalienable rights. If we believe these things are as right and true today as they were on that glorious July 4th, we must also believe they are right and true everywhere, and not least where the bloody hand of oppression lies most heavily."

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