WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, today chaired a hearing on U.S. policy in Syria in light of the security situation and escalation of violence in the country.
“Syrian men, women, and children have courageously engaged in demonstrations for more than eight months. They seek democratic reforms and protection for human rights, but the Assad regime has responded with terrible violence,” Senator Casey said. “We need to make it clear to the regime’s supporters that their behavior will not be tolerated, and they will be held accountable.”
The Subcommittee heard testimony from the U.S. Department of State’s Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, as well as Luke Bronin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Senator Casey’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
U.S. Policy In Syria
Robert P. Casey, Jr. Opening Statement
November 7, 2011
Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs meets to examine U.S. policy towards Syria. Syrian men, women, and children have courageously engaged in demonstrations for more than eight months. They seek democratic reforms and protection for human rights, but the Assad regime has responded with terrible violence. The UN estimates that more than 3,500 people have been killed since the unrest began in March.
Over the past week, Syria’s third largest city of Homs has been engulfed in perhaps the worst violence that we have seen in Syria this year. In just a week, more than 100 people have reportedly been killed. All of this coming during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. All of this coming after months of repression.
And perhaps most important of all – this violence comes one week after the Assad regime agreed to an Arab League deal for reform. In direct violation of the agreement, Assad’s forces have not removed their tanks and armored vehicles from the streets of towns. Violence aimed at demonstrators has not stopped, or even slowed. Political prisoners – there are reportedly tens of thousands of them – have not been released. Neither international journalists nor human rights monitors have been admitted into the country.
Assad has made it clear to the world that he has no interest in nor intention to pursue democratic reform. In fact, he has proven to the world that democratic reform is not possible while he remains in power.
For months, I have spoken about this grave situation in Syria. I have shared accounts of a regime whose brutality affects 22 million Syrians as well as my constituents in Pennsylvania. Dr. Hazem Hallek, a Syrian American who lives in suburban Philadelphia, was visited by his brother Sakher earlier this year. Sakher Hallek, also a doctor, was not engaged politics. Upon his return to Syria, he was tortured and killed by Assad’s forces for having visited the United States. The press has reported accounts of schoolchildren arrested, parents and community members murdered, disappearances and mutilations in Syria. In an August Washington Post op-ed, I wrote that Bashar al Assad must step down from power. We who recognize the horror in Syria have a responsibility to bear witness to the truth of this slaughter and to work against it.
Ambassador Robert Ford has taken on this critical task and represented the United States with honor and distinction. I applaud the work of the Ambassador his top-notch embassy staff.
We must continue take specific and visible actions to support democratic reform.
First, we need to make it clear to the regime’s supporters that their behavior will not be tolerated, and they will be held accountable. The administration, working with our European allies, should sanction more individuals within the regime who are complicit in the repression of protests. To date, 17 individuals and 18 entities have been sanctioned. The world needs to know these names and they need to decide whether they will continue to aid and abet a regime which has killed thousands. This week, I will send a letter to the Treasury Department to urge the Obama administration to expand its list of individuals sanctioned by the United States. The administration can do this by executive order and should do it as soon as possible.
Second, the U.S. must play a constructive role in isolating the Assad regime. In October, I called for the establishment of a “Friends of the Syrian People” contact group, which can serve as a main point of international engagement for the democratic opposition and the Syrian people. The Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and others could form the core of such a group, which would send a clear message of international solidarity in support of democratic change in Syria. I hope that this will be seriously considered by the Arab League when it meets to discuss Syria this Saturday. The U.S. should continue to fully support these regional efforts to pressure the regime.
In its agreement with the Assad government, the Arab League committed to sending international monitors to see first-hand the situation in Syria. Those monitors are needed now, not days or weeks from now. The Arab League should send them today. If Assad blocks the deployment of these monitors, the Arab League should suspend Syria’s membership in the organization. The U.S. should also make another push to pursue a resolution condemning the Assad regime at the United Nations. Strong international opposition and commitment to isolating the Assad regime is key to bringing about democratic reform.
The United States Senate should also support these efforts to isolate the regime. Through our regular interaction with embassies in Washington, individual senators can express concern for the ongoing violence and show their support for democratic change in Syria.
Third, the courageous Syrian political opposition must work to communicate a unified vision for the future of Syria. This opposition faces many disadvantages that other protestors across the region did not. Syrians do not have a Tahrir Square on which to gather in large numbers. They do not have open borders through which they can leave at will and find safe haven. They do not have the full attention of the international media, which has been barred from the country.
Despite these challenges, I believe that the Syrian opposition will be involved in the country’s future. It is imperative that the Syrian National Council answer questions about its composition and intent. Who are the members of the SNC? Where does it stand on the role of the international community in stopping the violence and supporting democratic reform? And most importantly, how will minorities be treated in a post-Assad Syria? We have yet to hear a clear message from the opposition on these most essential of issues.
The Syrian National Council must be committed to protecting all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups, including Christians and Allawites. The Syrian National Council must speak with one voice, and make it clear that it will advocate for minority rights in the new government it hopes to create. The Syrian people deserve answers to these key questions, which will in large part determine the degree of support for the Syrian opposition in and outside the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech on Monday that Assad “cannot deny his people’s legitimate demands indefinitely. He must step down; and until he does, America and the international community will continue to increase pressure on him and his brutal regime.” My questions today center primarily on how we can and will increase this pressure. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on the following key issues:
- What can regional powers, including the Arab League and Turkey do to play a more constructive role in supporting the democratic reform process in Syria?
- What is the impact of current U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime? How is the U.S. working unilaterally and with the EU to strengthen sanctions on Syria?
- How does the U.S. assess the current state of the Syrian National Council (SNC)? What are the criteria by which this movement should be judged in order to gain international legitimacy?
- What is your assessment of growing sectarianism in Syria and whether it could lead to civil war?
We are fortunate to have with us today two witnesses who can speak about U.S. policy in Syria: the Honorable Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State, and Luke Bronin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes at the Department of the Treasury. These witnesses have extensive experience and expertise in the region, and I look forward to their insights as to why our policy has not yet produced the desired results, and what more we can do. Thank you very much for being here with us today.