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Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee - Situation in Syria


Location: Washington, DC

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I join you in welcoming our distinguished witnesses.

"Let me also thank you, Mr. Chairman, for convening today's hearing at my request on the horrific situation in Syria. The urgency of this hearing has only grown more important over the past several weeks. It is estimated that nearly 7,500 lives have been lost, and many informed observers even think that figure could be low. Syria today is the scene of some of the worst state-sponsored violence since the Balkans.

"What is all the more astonishing is that the violence continues despite the severe international pressure that has been brought against Assad and his regime. Syria is almost completely isolated diplomatically, are the regime is facing a punishing array of economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, the Arab League, and others. This has been an impressive international effort, and the Administration deserves a lot of credit for helping to orchestrate it.

"Unfortunately, the violence continues -- and worse, it appears to be escalating. Assad seems to be accelerating his fight to the finish. And he is doing so with the active support thus far of Russia, China, and Iran. A steady supply of weapons, ammunition, and other assistance is flowing to Assad from Moscow and Tehran, and as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, Iranian military and intelligence operatives are likely working in Syria to strengthen the regime's crackdown.

"General Mattis testified to this Committee yesterday that, "Assad is clearly achieving what he wants to achieve,' that Assad's military campaign is, "gaining physical momentum on the battlefield,' and that, in General Mattis's opinion, Assad will "continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people.' Similarly, General Ronald Burgess, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, both told this Committee recently that, absent some kind of external intervention, Assad would likely remain in power for the foreseeable future.

"The United States has a clear national security interest in stopping the slaughter in Syria and forcing Assad to leave power. The end of the Assad regime could sever Hezbollah's lifeline to Iran, eliminate a long-standing threat to Israel, bolster Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and remove a committed state sponsor of terrorism that has engaged in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It would be a geopolitical success of the first order and, as General Mattis told this Committee yesterday, "the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.'

"The President has made it the objective of the United States that the killing in Syria must stop, and that Assad must go. The President has committed our prestige and credibility to that goal, and it is the right goal. But the killing continues.

"What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad's tank and artillery sieges in the many cities that are still contested. But time is running out. Assad's forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower -- which could break Assad's siege of contested cities in Syria, protect key population centers, and help the opposition to Assad on the ground to establish and defend safe havens in Syria where they can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad.

"At the request of the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and Local Coordinating Committees inside the country, the United States should help to lead such a military effort in Syria. But as I have repeatedly said, this does not mean we should go it alone. We should not. We should seek the active involvement of key Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Jordan, and Qatar -- and willing allies in the E.U. and NATO, the most important of which in this case is Turkey.

"Rather than closing off the prospects for a negotiated transition that is acceptable to Syria's opposition, military intervention is now needed to strengthen this option. Assad needs to know that he will not win, and unfortunately, that is not the case now. To the contrary, Assad seems convinced that he can wipe out the opposition through violence, and fully committed to doing so. The ideal political outcome of military intervention would be to change this dynamic -- to prevent a long and bloody fight to the finish by compelling Assad and his top lieutenants to give up power without further bloodshed, thereby creating the opportunity for a peaceful transition to democracy, possibly along the lines proposed by the Arab League.

"To be sure, there are legitimate questions about the efficacy of military options in Syria, and equally legitimate concerns about their risks and uncertainties. It is understandable that the Administration is reluctant to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions. Unfortunately, this policy is increasingly disconnected from the dire conditions on the ground in Syria, which has become a full state of armed conflict.

"Mr. Panetta, you were the Chief of Staff to President Clinton during much of debate over Bosnia in the 1990s, including the NATO bombing campaign. More than any of us, you remember the many painful years when the U.N. and the E.U. kept sending envoys to Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs, pleading with them to agree to reasonable requests, such as lifting the siege of Sarajevo and allowing access for humanitarian assistance. You will also remember how the Serb leaders cynically used these diplomatic entreaties to buy time to continue their killing.

"In Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, we heard many arguments against military intervention. It was said that there was no international consensus for action, that the situation on the ground was messy and confused, that it was not clear who we would actually be helping on the ground, and that our involvement could actually make matters worse. We heard all of these arguments about Bosnia, as you know Mr. Secretary, and now we hear them again about Syria today. We overcame them in Bosnia, thank God, and now we must overcome them in the case of Syria.

"I want to close by reading how President Clinton described Bosnia in 1995:

""Nowhere today is the need for American leadership more stark or more immediate than in Bosnia. For nearly four years, a terrible war has torn Bosnia apart. Horrors we prayed had been banished from Europe forever have been seared into our minds again. …

""There are times and places where our leadership can mean the difference between peace and war, and where we can defend our fundamental values as a people and serve our most basic, strategic interests. [T]here are still times when America and America alone can and should make the difference for peace.'

"Those were the words of a Democratic President who led America to do the right thing in helping to stop mass atrocities in the Balkans. And I remember working with my Republican colleague, Bob Dole, to support President Clinton in that endeavor. The question for another Democratic President today, and for all of us in positions of leadership and responsibility, is whether we will allow similar mass atrocities to continue in Syria -- and whether we will do what it takes to stop them.

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman."

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