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


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U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, today delivered an opening statement during the panel's hearing entitled "Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria, Part II." The following are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

"Atrocities can provoke two kinds of errors from their witnesses.

The first, is moral collapse; to look away and to refuse to see what is before one's eyes. Whether by impassivity, apathy or rationalization, the non-response to horror fails the test of moral responsibility. Each of us, I suspect, has at some point has walked away from someone or something which made a claim on our heart. Likewise, we as a government, and we as a nation, have sometimes failed to live up to our own highest aspirations.

The second kind of failure is a form of reflex; a heedless leap into the fire of need. Such acts of selflessness by individuals are often properly understood as heroic, but in the life of nations, they may be extremely unwise. Promising to "pay any price and bear any burden' sounds good on the East Lawn of the Capitol. I suspect these words sound less appealing while trying to survive a night-patrol in a Vietnamese jungle, or an Iraqi slum. A man who jumps into freezing waters to save another may succeed. But every boy-scout knows, it would be better to search for a pole or a rope, and pull from solid ground. And indeed, once the leap is made, the would-be savior may quickly become a victim as well, doubling the stakes of the crisis.

When this Subcommittee met last year to consider the implications of the Syrian Revolution, my fear was that we had fallen into the trap of indifference, and that we were seemingly heedless of both the needs of the people of Syria as well as the profound strategic implications implicit in the potential collapse of the Assad dictatorship.

While innocent protestors' blood was running in Syria's streets, State Department spokesmen were still rigidly calling for "restraint on all sides'--a smarmy, condescending phrase that really ought to be expunged from our government's lexicon--and it made the Obama Administration seem to be paralyzed.

Behind the scenes, however, and to their credit, the Obama Administration was working hard on developing the foundations of the broad international consensus which exists today, that has imposed unprecedented political, diplomatic and economic sanctions on the Assad regime, that has opened contacts with would-be successors to the existing Syrian government, and that is continuing to support the demand of the Syrian people to be free of Assad's tyranny.

Today, I fear the pendulum is swinging toward the second and more potentially dangerous error of precipitous action. I want to be very clear: Profound moral outrage at what the Assad regime has done is not an impediment or a failing: it is a bare requirement for standing in the human race. But the loathing, contempt and anger provoked by Assad's atrocities are poor counselors and doubtful policy makers.

As human beings, we must be informed by what we've seen. We can not pretend these events are trivial or somehow normal. The butchery of thousands of men and women, the torture of children, the shelling of civilians in order to sow terror are crimes against humanity, and we must not shy away from declaring these facts and insisting on their recognition. We serve no purpose but our own disgrace by hiding, obscuring or downplaying these facts. But our goal must be more than the satisfaction of our appetite for justice.

As a nation and as a leader in the international community, we continue to have powerful interests in seeing the ultimate destruction of the Assad regime. But that doesn't mean that we want to see Syria in anarchy, without any government. We want Assad's forces to stop the killing. We want Assad gone. But that doesn't mean sundry air-strikes or the mere declaration of safe-zones will succeed in achieving these ends. We want the Syrian opposition to cohere, to stake out strong, determined positions regarding a liberal, democratic, pluralistic Syria to come. But it doesn't necessarily follow that releasing a flood of arms will facilitate that objective.

We need to engage both our heads and our hearts. Yes, Assad must go and we need--from both a moral and national interest position--to facilitate that effort. But determining how to do that is considerably more complex than simply declaring it to be good to do so.

It is all well and good for politicians and pundits to make robust speeches. For some, exhortations meet the definition of duty. Nevertheless, words, however righteous and mightily declared, do not feed refugees. They do not send soldiers back to their barracks. They do not collapse corrupt, bloody, failed regimes.

Diplomacy that makes space for the Syrian people's continued popular protests, international cooperation that facilitates the movement of relief supplies, economic sanctions that pressure and squeeze don't inspire us. No statues will be built and no parades will be marched to honor the slow and hopefully steady constriction of a still-tightening political-economic noose around Assad and his thugs.

Our goal, of course, is not wish fulfillment or glory. We are engaged in this work because it is our moral obligation and because it serves key national security goals. And that is why despite the starts and stops, despite the agonizing slow pace, despite the endless frustration of coalition building and diplomatic engagement with adversaries, we must keep at this work until it is done. Assad must go, and for that, the noose must tighten. And with the means we have, we must speed the work."

Witnesses for the hearing included: Andrew Tabler, Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Mara E. Karlin, Instructor in Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and Marc Lynch, Ph.D, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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