As the security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, US officials are grappling with how to handle a civil war that has dragged on for more than four years, has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and has allowed terrorist groups to thrive in the Middle Eastern country.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, testified at a hearing on US policy in Syria on Wednesday, noting just how bad the war has gotten.
“Where to begin with Syria?” he asked. “At this point, the whole situation is such a mess that it might be tempting to throw up our hands and walk away. Let Russia deal with it. But then we’re reminded of the daily toll of those lost to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s barrel bombs, at the hands of ISIS terrorists, or, most recently, to Russian attacks.”
Engel continued: “We’re reminded of the photographer, known as Caesar, who sat in this room a year ago, showing us in searing, graphic detail what Assad has done to his own people. We’re reminded of the millions of Syrian refugees, their lives shattered and their homes lost. We’re reminded of the real security interests at stake for the United States and our partners in the region. And we’re reminded that American leadership is most important in the most difficult situations, not the easy ones.”
Assad has bombed his own people as he has struggled to hold onto power and beat back moderate rebels and jihadis who fight his regime. Russia has also entered the fray to help prop up Assad’s regime, which Russia supports, under the guise of fighting ISIS, a Sunni terror group.
For much of the war, the US had been relatively hands-off in Syria, opting to run airstrikes and equip moderate rebels without getting too involved in the ground fight. Then, last week, US President Barack Obama authorised sending special operations forces into Syria to “advise and assist” rebel forces fighting ISIS. These forces can also ask for permission to go into the field if needed.
Engel acknowledged that the government’s initial “train-and-equip” plan failed because it was too little, too late.
“That was early in the conflict when we had an opportunity to change the dynamics on the battlefield,” he said. “It was before the death toll reached into the hundreds of thousands. It was before millions more spilled over Syria’s borders, creating a refugee crisis that now spans two continents. It was before ISIS rose up as a brutal and destructive force in the region.
“So by the time the United States finally enacted a train-and-equip effort, it was far too late. It was also too little. The mission was doomed from the start by its own limited parameters — training vetted rebels only to fight ISIS, while not fully understanding that they would rather oppose the Assad regime.”
The US has been reluctant to allow forces it supported to fight the Assad regime. Some experts have said it was partly because the US was reluctant to anger Iran, one of Syria’s major allies, as Obama negotiated a historic nuclear deal with the country.
In his testimony, Engel advocated for a new authorization for the use of military force. He also expressed concern about the refugee crisis and Russia’s involvement in Syria.
“I simply don’t trust Putin,” he said. “He’s been driving a crisis in eastern Europe for more than a year, and now he’s sticking his nose into Syria. His goal is to keep Assad in power — a fact made clear by his targeting of the moderate opposition.”
Assad’s brutal rule has fed the refugee crisis more so than terrorist groups who operate in Syria, and Engel called for a strategy to deal with the crisis.
“Half of the Syrian population has been displaced,” Engel said. “The countries bordering Syria are shouldering a tremendous burden — countries that are already strained by threats to their security and stability. We need a long-term strategy, for the millions without a home and for an increasingly imperiled region.”
As the US adjusts its strategy, the war in Syria drags on, ISIS maintains its strongholds, Assad keeps dropping bombs, and refugees continue to flee.
“It’s past time for the Congress to take action,” Engel concluded. “So let’s learn from our past mistakes, look toward the future, and focus on new ways to move this crisis toward a resolution.”
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