WASHINGTON — U.S. diplomats on Thursday expressed “cautious optimism” at the pace of eliminating chemical weapons in Syria, but faced intense scrutiny from a Senate committee about the lack of a long-term strategy to save the country from becoming a failed state.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from several officials in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday — the same day the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad met the first deadline for elimination of its chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced that Syria has destroyed its weapons-production capabilities and is cooperating with inspectors.
Specifically, the inspectors said they had visited 21 of 23 sites — the remaining two were unreachable because of safety concerns — and had placed all remaining production equipment under seal. The development means that the process remains on track to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014.
In Thursday’s hearing, State Department and USAID officials faced intense, often harsh criticism from Democratic and Republican committee members saying there is no clear plan to remove Assad from power, to help millions of Syrian refugees or to aid the opposition — still bitter that the U.S. did not take military action in September.
“We have weakened ourselves,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee’s top Republican, told Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria. “We have empowered Assad. We have thrown out anything resembling a strategy.
“Do you feel good about the strategy we have now? Do you feel good with what our country is doing right now? I find it appalling that you sit here with a straight face and feel good about what we’ve done.”
Ford called the ongoing civil war “an awful, grinding war of attrition” that presents “incredibly difficult challenges.” He also acknowledged “anguish” among opposition forces that the U.S. did not follow through on its threat of military action.
He said the U.S. remains deeply engaged with opposition forces, as well as Russian officials, to form a transition government in which the opposition would have veto power. Secretary of State John Kerry is working closely with Russia, he said.
“There’s not a person on my team that isn’t frustrated with the war in Syria,” Ford said. “But we do give (the opposition) a lot of assistance, and they appreciate it.”
Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and proliferation, emphasized the progress of the weapons inspectors. But he said an especially risky situation lies ahead with the logistics and security challenges of getting the weapons out of Syria and permanently destroyed.
“We also do not assume or take for granted that the Syrian government will continue full compliance with its obligations,” Countryman said.
Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance — a division of USAID — addressed the humanitarian toll of the war. She called the pace of escalation “staggering” and noted there are reports of a widespread outbreak of polio.
“In just the last year, the number of reported deaths has tripled from 26,000 to more than 100,000,” Lindborg said. “The number in need inside Syria jumped from 2.5 million people to more than 6.8 million — roughly the equivalent of the combined populations of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut.”
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., praised the progress of weapons inspectors but said the flight of Syrians leaving the country had become a “devastating humanitarian crisis” and called for an increase in humanitarian aid.
Like Corker, he expressed blunt frustration with what he described as a lack of a U.S. strategy.
“I appreciate your testimony and your service, but I didn’t hear a strategy,” he told Ford at one point in Thursday’s hearing.
In his opening remarks, Menendez went even further, saying there was little light at the end of the tunnel. Leaving Syria as a failed state in the heart of the Mideast cannot be allowed, he said.
“Despite that fact that most of us today would agree that a negotiated settlement is preferable to military action or the collapse of the Syrian state, the utter lack of consensus on a transitional governance plan for Syria portends continued bloodshed and suffering,” he said. “A failed Syrian state, bordering Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and our ally Israel, could become a haven and training ground for violent extremist groups in an already unstable region.”
In reply, Ford referred to “a two-track strategy,” in which pressure continues to be put on the Assad regime to make concessions to the opposition, while working with countries such as Russia to mediate and to keep pressure on Assad.
A particularly alarming message was delivered by Ambassador Frederic C. Hof, of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who called the situation in Syria “a threat to regional and international peace.”
“Left on its present course, a dying Syria with a dead economy will be hemorrhaging refugees and exporting terrorism for many years to come,” he said. “Syria on its present course is becoming the worst of all conceivable scenarios: a failed state divided between international terrorists; a carcass being devoured by violent criminals.”
In a second panel before the Senate committee Thursday, Hof called the Syria war “a problem from hell” and said that neither the Assad regime nor the opposition forces are able to deliver a “knockout punch.”
But the situation won’t be solved by persuading Assad to negotiate, either, he said. Instead, the U.S. should focus its diplomatic efforts on leaders in Tehran and Moscow, motivating them “to get their client out of the business of war crimes and crimes against humanity. “
Leslie Gelb, president emeritus and board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the U.S. has been pursuing a lackadaisical, misguided strategy and should focus on Iran and Russia.
“We started out wanting to get rid of Assad and then did nothing about it. We drew red lines and then walked away from them. And now it seems that we’re just going to let this war drag on,” he said.
If U.S. diplomats can convince Russian and Iranian leaders that they have a common interest in subduing extremism, Gelb said, America could be better positioned to enlist their support in removing Assad.
“The U.S., then, has to use its policies, arms and aid to forge this alliance between Alawites and moderate Sunni rebels. Both would focus on fighting the jihadis, not each other,” he said. “But you can’t just say, ‘Let’s go have a Geneva conference.’ It won’t work.”