Leahy Statement On The Need For A Strategy On Syria

Mr. President, the magnitude of atrocities and devastation in Syria caused by ISIS and the Assad regime, with support from Russia and Iran, is appalling.  When this calamity began in 2011, I doubt anyone predicted it would come to this.  Hundreds of thousands of people killed.  Half the population of the country displaced, many living as refugees in neighboring countries.  Whole cities reduced to rubble riddled with landmines and booby traps. 

For years, I, like others here, have called for a comprehensive U.S. strategy for responding to the Syrian crisis that is grounded in cooperation with the international community, to be presented to Congress.  I have also supported hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to desperate Syrian civilians.  We must at least do what is within our power to address the needs of those affected while efforts are made to bring the violence to an end.

I have also defended Congress’ sole authority to declare war, which should always be based on a clear strategy.  I opposed the Obama Administration’s proposal for the authorization for the use of force in Syria in 2013 because it was overly broad, and would have ceded to the White House power reserved to Congress under the Constitution.  I have also opposed the manner in which President Trump has twice launched attacks against Syria without approval from Congress. 

While I recognize and appreciate the considerable precautions that were taken in the early hours of April 15th by the U.S. military to prevent civilian casualties and avoid targeting Russian assets in Syria, whenever military operations are conducted the outcome is never certain.  Things can go terribly wrong.  In this instance, instead of demolishing two or three Syrian chemical weapons facilities, we could have triggered a shooting war with Russia, and Israel and Iran might have quickly followed suit.  What began as a missile attack lasting a few minutes could have ignited a regional war.  That is a risk that Congress must be given the opportunity to weigh.      

The use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity and a violation of international law that cannot be tolerated.  But it is also a fact that conventional attacks by the Assad regime have caused far more deaths of innocent men, women, and children.  The Assad regime has been slaughtering its own people for more than seven years by dropping barrel bombs, laying siege to cities to prevent access to food, water and medicine, and using poison gas.  While we all want to act decisively in the face of such atrocities, the United States cannot solve this crisis using Tomahawk missiles.  All such attacks can do, it appears, is degrade, most likely only temporarily, Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.  This was demonstrated in the aftermath of President Trump’s first military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in April 2017.  It was conducted with great fanfare, without congressional authorization, and it failed to prevent future attacks.  President Trump has now launched a second attack without the approval of Congress, and he has proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”  

Why didn’t the President seek Congress’ approval?  And what is the mission?  How would we have responded if the attacks had triggered an escalation of violence, potentially spinning out of control?  Those critical questions need answers.  

Perhaps the most fundamental question for this Administration is what does President Trump seek to achieve in Syria?  Is it limited to defeating ISIS and punishing Assad for using chemical weapons?  Are we willing to accept Russia and Iran determining Syria’s future?  If not, what is the strategy for ending the war, if Russia continues to block diplomatic efforts in the UN Security Council?  How does the White House explain cutting aid for refugees overseas, withdrawing the United States from the Global Compact on Migration, limiting the resettlement of Syrian refugees here to only 11 people so far in 2018, compared to 790 last year during the same period, and suspending $200 million in U.S. aid for civilians in Syria?  Those funds are intended to help improve the livelihoods of Syrians impacted by the war, including to provide access to basic services.   

Does the White House believe that it is in the national interest to conduct attacks against Syria, at the risk of triggering a wider war and after failing to produce the intended results in the past, but that it is not in our national interest to provide aid to Syrian civilians in areas controlled by our partners? 

I am also concerned about what these attacks against Syria may reveal about President Trump’s willingness to direct a military attack elsewhere without obtaining the consent of Congress, for example, against North Korea, or Iran. 

The conflict in Syria obviously has no easy solution, and it is apparent that it has no military solution.  It is the President’s job to explain what our strategy is, including how we can overcome Russia’s intransigence at the United Nations amidst mounting concerns that we will abandon the Syrian people, before he fires off another volley of missiles that do not get us any closer to a solution and which may have the opposite effect. 

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