Senators slam Obama’s Syria sellout
|U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev|
(With news agencies) -- Russia hopes an international peace conference on Syria will be held by year’s end, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said, despite reported differences with the United States over opposition representation.
He appealed to both sides in Syria's civil war to compromise and criticized the opposition for demanding assurances of President Bashar al-Assad's departure as a condition for the so-called Geneva-2 talks.
"I hope it will be possible to hold the conference by the end of this year but we understand that the influence of all sides taking part is limited," Medvedev told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday.
"It depends to a great extent on the positions of the Syrian sides. We're pushing them towards this, and I hope everyone who talks to different circles in Syria will do the same," he said.
"It's a difficult process and everyone must compromise, including opposition leaders and the Syrian government, of course."
Russia has been Assad's most powerful backer during the two-and-a-half-year-old conflict, delivering weapons, blocking three UN Security Council resolutions meant to pressure him and saying his exit cannot be a precondition for peace talks.
U.S., Russian and UN envoys are to meet in Geneva on Tuesday as part of preparations for the long-delayed conference, which Russia and the United States first proposed in May.
The latest target date for the talks, November 23, looks likely to be pushed back and sources close to the negotiations say a main point of contention is the role of the Western-backed opposition coalition.
Assad Needs Guarantees
Western and Gulf Arab countries opposed to Assad say the Geneva talks should be between a "single delegation of the Syrian regime and a single delegation of the opposition" led by the coalition.
Russia sees the coalition as just one part of the opposition and has suggested that several delegations, including Damascus-based figures tolerated by the government, could represent Assad's enemies.
"I think that the ideas that are sometimes put forward - let's exclude President Assad and then agree on everything - are unrealistic as long as Assad is in power," Medvedev said.
"He's not mad. He must receive some kind of guarantees or, in any case, some kind of proposals on the development of political dialogue in Syria itself, on possible elections, on his personal fate."
Assad suggested last month that he could seek re-election in a vote scheduled for next year.
Medvedev said Assad might be worried by the fates suffered by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - who was overthrown and put on trial - and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who met a grisly death after being ousted from power.
"You have to agree that when he recalls the fate of President Mubarak or Colonel Muammar Gaddafi ... his mood probably doesn't get any better," Medvedev said. "So you can't just say 'get out and then we'll agree everything'."
Sen. Bob Corker
In response to U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford's testimony defending the Obama administration's slow delivery of long-promised aid to moderate forces in Syria, U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Thursday called the lack of U.S. support for the opposition an "embarrassment," arguing that with Russia's hands "now on the steering wheel" in Syria, the U.S. lacks a strategy for resolving the conflict or for the region as whole, which is causing America's allies to question U.S. "reliability."
The hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came as the prospects for Geneva-2 appear increasingly gloomy. The only positive note struck at the hearing was about progress on the U.S.-Russia plan to remove Assad’s chemical weapons.
Republican senators blasted the administration for striking a deal with chief Assad ally Russia on chemical weapons when there’s no letup to the killings that occur daily by conventional means.
“Everybody watching understands that, in essence, we’ve thrown out any real strategy there and are just trying to figure out a way out of this,” said Sen. Corker. “We’ve empowered Assad; we’ve weakened ourselves relative to other issues in the Middle East.”
Corker added, "Let's face it guys: what really happened when the Russian offer came forth, it was less about seizing an opportunity and it was more about our country not having the stomach to follow through on a strategy over the longer term relative to Syria."
“There is no strategy right now for the opposition. None. There is no strategy,” Corker said. “And for that reason there’s unlikely to be a very successful Geneva 2 conference, because who is it that we’re going to be dealing with? Who is it that we’re going to be bringing to the table?”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, took aim at the State Department’s year-old effort to organize a peace conference in Geneva.
“While the international community holds meetings about meetings, the Assad regime continues its brutal assault on the Syrian people, backed by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah,” Menendez said.
Using loaded language such as “feckless” and “abandonment” to describe U.S. policy, senators quizzed the diplomats and experts before them, not only on the obstacles blocking the Geneva process, but also on difficulties in the chemical weapons removal efforts.
They also asked about the reasons behind America’s failure to deliver on promised aid to the opposition.
One particularly testy exchange occurred between Corker, the panel’s ranking Republican, and Ambassador Ford, who was recalled in 2011 amid safety concerns. Corker suggested that Ford must be “incredibly embarrassed at where we are” on Syria and, his voice rising, demanded of the envoy: “Do you feel good about what our country is doing with the opposition right now?”
Ford, visibly flustered, replied: “There isn’t a person on my team at the State Department who doesn’t feel frustrated – frustrated – by the Syrian problem in general. But I have to say we do provide support to help them against the regime.”
Sen. John McCain
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long a proponent of some form of military intervention to tip the war in the rebels’ favor, had the harshest criticism for the Obama Administration’s approach. He complained about U.S. diplomats bragging about sending trucks – some pickups from the U.S. were just delivered to the rebel command – at a time when Iran and Russia make sure Assad’s arsenals are full.
McCain said the administration had lodged the U.S. in an “Orwellian situation” in which it was working closely with Russia to dismantle the chemical arsenal but turning a blind eye to the conventional weapons Moscow sent into Syria.
He delivered a blistering criticism of America’s Syria policy, calling it “a shameful chapter in American history.” McCain said he understood why Saudi Arabia had been publicly feuding with the United States over what it views as America’s negligence.
“The reason the Saudis have divorced themselves from the United States of America is because of what you just articulated to Sen. Corker — trucks,” he said to Ford. “That’s a great thing, trucks, as shiploads of weapons come in to the Russian port, as plane load after plane load lands and provides weapons — all kinds of lethal weapons. And we’re proud of the fact that we gave them trucks,” he said.
"You continue to call this a civil war, Ambassador Ford," said McCain. "This isn't a civil war anymore; this is a regional conflict. It's spread to Iraq. We now have al-Qaeda resurgence in Iraq. It's destabilizing Jordan. Iran is all in. Hezbollah has 5,000 troops there. For you to describe this as a quote, 'civil war,' of course, is a gross distortion of the facts, which again makes many of us question your fundamental strategy because you are — you don't describe the realities on the ground."
McCain was not satisfied, saying Assad's killing of civilians remained unchecked.
"Come on. ...The fact is that he was about to be toppled a year ago, or over a year ago. Then Hezbollah came in. Then the Russians stepped up their effort. Then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard intervened in what you call a, quote, 'civil war,' and he turned the tide. And he continues to maintain his position of power and slaughtering innocent Syrian civilians. And you are relying on a Geneva conference, right?"
The senators also received a grim update on the human toll – a death tally that’s tripled in the past year to 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees, turning a national crisis regional. In addition, 6.8 million people need help, the equivalent of the combined populations of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut.
“Behind these jarring statistics is the real toll on the Syrian people: the kids who haven’t gone to school for two years, the women who have endured rape and abuse, and the 5 million internally displaced Syrians who don’t have a place to live or enough to eat,” said Nancy Lindborg, the assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development.