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The following is the text as prepared which U. S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) delivered today for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington Forum on the topic: “Dictators and Dissidents: Should the West Choose Sides?”

Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.

“U.S. Policy on Syria”

December 6, 2012

Thank You, Ken for your kind words and friendship. I also want to thank FDD’s chairman, Ambassador Jim Woolsey, its president, Cliff May, its executive director, Mark Dubowitz and its staff for being so responsive to our office when we have reached out to them.

As chairman of the Near East, South and Central Asia Subcommittee, the founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Caucus on Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism I value the work you do on the range of topics associated with these issues – the security of our troops in Afghanistan, Syria policy, and of course, the work you do to strengthen our Iran policy.  Your team has brought to the forefront carefully thought out and persuasive research and policy positions that have been outstanding resources for those of us in Congress focused on these issues.

The theme of this year’s Washington Forum is “Dictators and Dissidents: Should the West Choose Sides?”  Quite topical given the events of the Arab Spring and the nascent democratic openings in other places like Burma.  I would argue that the central question is actually one of process.  The central question is whether the U.S. and the West should support the democratic process such that citizens are able to choose their own leaders.  Democracy does not begin or end with elections, but includes the active engagement of civil society, a free press and a fair environment in which candidates and parties can compete.  All of these components are required for true democratic development to take place.  These processes may give rise to political movements and leaders that may disagree with the U.S. or even oppose certain western policies.

In years past, U.S. and western diplomats have often had a sole address to call upon in many countries, usually a dictator’s doorstep.  Today, the job of a western diplomat and U.S. diplomatic engagement more broadly, particularly in the Middle East, has expanded greatly to include the necessity of engaging directly with a wide swath of society, to include human rights and policy advocates, journalists and others.  I would argue that relations with countries that have duly-elected leadership are built on more stable foundations than the substantial, but ultimately brittle ties that the U.S. maintained with for example Mubarak in Egypt or Saleh in Yemen. 

Nowhere in the region is the struggle against dictatorship today more vital and acute than in Syria.  Over the course of the past 20 months, it has become abundantly clear that with Bashar Al Assad in power, there is no possibility for a democratic process in the country. 

For years, Syria has been one of the most repressive countries in the world, according to the State Department’s human rights reports and analytical studies done by Freedom House.  Political dissidents were routinely imprisoned or disappeared and journalists were silenced.  Human rights activists operated underground, living in constant fear of the dreaded mukhabarat.  Meanwhile, Bashar Al Assad professed a commitment to playing a constructive role in the region and he was cast by many as a reformer.  But his terrible treatment of his own people should have been a strong indication of who he really was.  How a government treats its people a true testament to its character.  How a government treats its own people is an indication of how it will act on the world stage. 

We have seen how Assad operates in the region and how his ties with Iran and Hezbollah have strengthened over the years.  Iran has desperately sought to bolster the regime in Damascus, its only true ally in the region.  This has meant providing weapons, logistical support and tactical advice to the Syrian government forces.  

Iran has also used Syria as a conduit for support to Hezbollah as that terrorist organization has substantially increased its arsenal of rockets and missiles, a restocking after the 2006 war against Israel.  I have sought to use my position in the Senate to put a bright spotlight on the destructive terrorist activities that Hezbollah continues to conduct in the region and around world.  After Al Qaeda, Hezbollah has killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization.  In recent years, Hezbollah and its Iranian backers have been tied to terrorist attacks or planned attacks in Turkey, Cyprus, India, Thailand and Azerbaijan.  The investigation into the July 18th attack in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver, appears to have the markings of a Hezbollah strike.  Last year, I chaired a foreign relations committee hearing on the growing threat posed by Hezbollah and in September, I led a letter signed by 76 Senators to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton strongly urging that the European Union designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.  In her response, Ms. Ashton laid out the bureaucratic hurdles to a designation, something which I believe can and should be overcome.  In the coming days, I will introduce a resolution with Senators Lieberman and Risch with the same message. 

Degrading the destructive power of Iran and Hezbollah is in the national security interests of the United States.  Bashar al -Assad is a key link between them.  Efforts to support moderate forces opposing him within Syria should be considered now and considered seriously.   

I recently called for a more robust U.S. response to the crisis in Syria.  I believe that a political transition to a government that reflects the will of the Syrian people is in the core interests of the United States in the region.  Moreover, this change would align with our values of supporting the democratic process and the basic rights and freedoms that should be enjoyed by all people, regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender.

Over the course of the past 20 months, the Assad regime has unleashed a barrage of unspeakable terror across the country with the sole aim of remaining in power.  More than 40,000 have been killed and countless injured.  Refugees have surged into neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, taxing the limits of those countries’ capacity and creating a regional crisis.  Assad’s escalation of violence has reached a point where fighter jets have been used to kill civilians standing in bread lines, according to Human Rights Watch.  Fighter jets are used to kill civilians standing in bread lines.  This regime’s shocking capacity for widespread terror may only grow, as we see reports that chemical weapons are being prepared for use.

Meanwhile, international institutions have largely remained on the sidelines, held hostage by the reprehensible policies of the Russian and Chinese governments.  The administration was right to initially work through the United Nations, but unfortunately, due to Russian and Chinese intransigence, these efforts have only served to prolong the suffering of the Syrian people.  We need a new course.

Ambassador Ford has led the charge in coordinating humanitarian assistance.  Let me just share a few thoughts on this brave American.  I am glad that he spoke here earlier today.  His personal courage and commitment to seeing a way forward in Syria are remarkable.  His visit to Hama in July 2011 stands as a testament to America’s commitment and concern for the Syrian people.    I was proud to chair his confirmation hearing to serve as Ambassador and have appreciated his friendship and openness to engaging with Congress over the course of this crisis.  He is precisely the kind of diplomat that we need during these challenging times in the Middle East.  We need more Robert Fords.   

Ambassador Ford and his team have led an important effort to support a more cohesive and moderate opposition political group in Syria.  This has not been easy.  Opposition political organizing is difficult in the best of circumstances, nevermind during a war and after decades of severe repression by the Syrian government.  Despite these considerable challenges, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was recently established in Doha.  This group is not perfect, nor should we expect it to be.  I don’t need to tell anyone in Washington that the work of political consensus is hard.  Moving forward, I expect that the administration will communicate clear and achievable criteria for the formal recognition of this group as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  Once met, the U.S. should move quickly to recognize and show support for this group and continue to repeat the central importance of commitment to democratic principles and human rights for Syrians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Time is growing increasingly short for those moderate elements among the political and armed opposition, as we see reports of increased influence of foreign fighters and jihadis in Syria.  The space to positively influence the environment is narrow and may be closing.  The establishment of the new opposition group, combined with a better understanding of the armed opposition, provides a renewed opportunity for a more assertive U.S. policy.  I propose that the administration should consider the following measures:

  1. First, the U.S. must lead an effort to better coordinate international support for the moderate Syrian opposition.  Several countries over the past 20 months have provided different degrees of military, political and humanitarian assistance to Syrian opposition groups inside the country, which has led to a common complaint from those in the opposition – they say that the U.S. and international community have applied considerable pressure on the Syrian opposition to coalesce and coordinate, yet those countries providing assistance to the opposition are sometimes not coordinating among themselves and sometime work at cross purposes.  They want us to heed our own advice, which I think is fair.  Lack of international coordination has served to exacerbate tensions within the opposition inside the country and to empower jihadi elements active there.  U.S. leadership among interested countries would help to better coordinate these efforts and bolster the position of moderate elements in the country.

We must also work closely with Syria’s neighbors, who are suffering greatly from the spill-over effects of this crisis, to ensure that they are committed to hastening the end of the Assad regime.  I am very concerned that Iraq continues to allow Iranian flights to use Iraqi airspace to transport military supplies disguised as humanitarian aid to the Syrian regime.  Iraq’s failure to inspect all flights and turn back any that are carrying illicit cargo violates international sanctions and directly undermines U.S. security interests.  The Iraqi government must commit to inspecting all Iranian aircraft passing through its airspace to ensure that Iran is not able to facilitate Assad’s brutality and prolong the survival of the regime. As a major recipient of U.S. assistance, Iraq must not continue to undercut our key interests in the region. 

  1. Second, the U.S. should consider initiating security cooperation to include training and intelligence sharing with heavily-vetted opposition groups that are committed to the democratic process and universally accepted human rights principles.  I understand that organizations like the Syrian Support Group have developed criteria and secured commitments from many commanders on the ground to abide by internationally accepted human rights norms and conventions relevant to behavior during armed conflict.
  1. Third, the U.S. should consider measures that would hamper the ability of the Syrian Air Force to conduct aerial attacks on civilians.  NATO is finalizing the fielding of Patriot missile batteries, which is an important step in the right direction.  While defensive in nature, I think that these batteries are an important display of international solidarity with Turkey and the Syrian people.  The administration should also examine and assess other ways in which the Syrian Air Force can be deterred and degraded including the use of surface-to-surface tomahawk missiles to degrade the Syrian air force on the ground.
  1. Fourth, as part of our support for the opposition, we should be working to identify ways to strengthen moderate elements within the country with direct monetary support.  Years ago, the international community provided oil and energy assistance to towns led by democratic forces opposed to Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia.  This assistance helped to bolster the standing of these leaders in the eyes of their constituents and helped them to provide much needed heating services during the cold Serbian winter.   In Syria the humanitarian situation is considerably more dire, but so is the need for Syria’s emerging democrats to deliver.   If we can help on that front in a way that does not exacerbate internal opposition dynamics, then we should. 
  1. Finally, as soon as the security situation permits, the U.S. should enhance our diplomatic engagement in Syria by sending emissaries to meet with members of the political opposition in the northern part of the country.  This important display of solidarity would greatly enhance U.S. standing among the moderate opposition and would improve our ability to understand what will be considerable challenges in post-Assad Syria.

Greater U.S. engagement is essential to ensuring that this conflict ends with the removal of Assad and that Iran and Hezbollah are significantly weakened.  This is clearly in our national security interests.  While I do not support the use of U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, I believe that the U.S. can and should take more concrete steps to demonstrate support for this transition.  While we can’t predict exactly what a new Syrian government will look like, we can encourage moderate actors to take center stage and emphasize the importance of the process – the process of building institutions, the process of electing new leaders, and the process of bringing together Syrians of different backgrounds to pursue a common goal of peace and representative government.  This is a goal worth supporting, and I hope that the U.S. will demonstrate our commitment to these core principles in the weeks and months ahead.