Opening Statement Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Corker and members of the committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to come and give you an update on the United States government’s Syria policy. I have submitted written testimony for the record.
I’ve been alternating one week in Washington and one week in the Middle East for the last month as we work to provide assistance to the moderate opposition and as we push for a political settlement. Let me focus on those two elements, strategy with the opposition, and focus on the political settlement. And I’ll let my colleagues Assistant Secretary Countryman and Assistant Administrator Lindborg talk about chemical weapons and humanitarian assistance issues.
The conflict in Syria now is a grinding war of attrition. The regime is suffering serious manpower shortages. For that reason, it has brought in foreign fighters from Hezbollah, from the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and even Iraqi Shia militiamen. Meanwhile, the moderate opposition that we support is fighting on two fronts, both against the regime and against militants, extremists directly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, the same al-Qaida in Iraq that we used to fight.
The battle front in Syria is more complicated now, but neither the regime nor the various opposition factions can throw a knockout punch in the foreseeable future, and our strategy is based on that assessment. Secretary Kerry, therefore, is working extensively with Russia, with other concerned members of the international community, including countries like us that strongly support the Syrian opposition, and he is working with the United Nations to promote a political solution.
Last week, on October 22nd in London, 11 countries that strongly support the Syrian opposition came together and we all reaffirmed our support for a negotiated settlement based on the full implementation — I want to underline that — full implementation of the June 2012 Geneva communique. This full implementation of the Geneva communique is also what we have agreed upon during the summer with the United Nations and the Russian government.
We, the Russians, the London 11 countries and the United Nations all agree that a Geneva peace conference should result in the creation of a transition governing body established by mutual agreement between the Syrian regime and the opposition. This is a political solution which most Syrians and those countries supporting the opposition and supporting the regime would back.
We have confirmed with the Russians during our summer discussions and among the 11 countries that just met in London that mutual consent — I mentioned mutual consent to set up this government — mutual consent would mean the opposition has a veto on the formation and the details of that transition government. Speaking frankly, no one who knows the groups that are resisting and fighting the regime now thinks they’ll ever accept Assad. That said, the regime also has a veto, and so if we do get to a Geneva conference, we can expect very tough negotiations.
The Syrian opposition has a role to play here. It needs to tell other Syrians not only what it rejects but also what it proposes in terms of a reasonable alternative to the existing Assad regime. It needs to put that on the table. Why? Because many of the people who support the regime now do so fearfully. And I have heard this repeatedly from them, from people I have met. They want to know is there a way out of the conflict.
And the Russians who back the regime but say they are not tied to Assad, they too want to see the opposition put forward an alternative. So the opposition has a lot of work to do in this regard. And that reasonable alternative is especially needed now because of the growing competition between extremists and moderates inside Syria.
And Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I really want to emphasize that we have to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance within the Syrian opposition, people who resist the regime but who also resist al-Qaida-linked extremists.
That — I said that last spring when I appeared before you, and it’s even more true today. Our nonlethal support of a moderate armed opposition is therefore vital, and is a point that General Idris of the Supreme Military Council has made to me repeatedly.
More broadly, since the start of the conflict, we have provided over 250 million (dollars) in nonlethal assistance to the coalition and a range of local councils, grassroot groups, to help preserve institutions of governance in places where the Syrian regime has withdrawn.
As I have told this committee before, Syria presents incredibly difficult challenges. We will continue working to support the moderates in the opposition and to push forward on a political solution. We look forward to working with the Congress as we move ahead. Thank you again for the opportunity to come before you today, and I will be happy to take questions. Thank you.