Bipartisan Senate delegation calls for shift in Syria aid

Bipartisan Senate delegation calls for shift in Syria aid

U.S. humanitarian aid to Syria is not enough, not going through the right channels, and not reaching the people who need it most, according to a bipartisan group of senators who just returned from a trip to the Middle East.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) led a delegation last week to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Afghanistan that included Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kirsten Gilibrand (D-NY). Several of the delegation members spoke at a Tuesday press conference on the trip and all called for more U.S. humanitarian aid to be given to Syrian refugees and the Syrian opposition directly, rather than being funneled through NGOs or international intermediaries.

"The main area of agreement among us, both Democrats and Republicans, is the need for the United States to do more to help the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom," said McCain. "From Syrian opposition leaders and refugees we heard a very consistent message. We heard that the longer this conflict goes, the worse it gets for Syria, the region, and indeed the world, with increasing numbers of extremists falling into the fight… We heard desperate pleas for U.S. support and assistance."

McCain told the story of a teacher in a refugee camp the delegation visited in Jordan, whom he said was representative of the refugees the delegation met on the trip.

"We heard a visceral frustration and outright anger, especially from the refugees, about the inadequate level of the U.S. support and assistance in their struggle against the Assad regime," he said. "This woman warned us that these Syrian children would, in her words, seek revenge on those who did not help Syria in its hour of greatest need."

Specifically, the Syrians want increased humanitarian aid to go directly through the new Syrian opposition council that President Barack Obama publicly recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Several of the senators said that the United States must increase support for the opposition body lest it lose the support of the Syrians on the ground it hopes to eventually lead.

"We are delivering significant humanitarian assistance into Syria, but it’s going through international aid agencies and being distributed out of Damascus, rather than in ways that strengthen the credibility and the reach and the effectiveness of the Syrian opposition council," Coons said.

The delegation met with Syrian opposition council leaders in Cairo.

"They expressed that they need more support from the international community," Ayotte said. "One of the requests the Syrian opposition coalition made to us is that they be the recipient of humanitarian aid."

The senators said they all supported increased military aid to the Syrian opposition, but there was no unanimity on exactly how that aid should be given and to whom. McCain and Ayotte said they supported both directly aiding the rebel Free Syrian Army and establishing a no-fly zone. Coons, Whitehouse, and Blumenthal said they supported increased military aid to the rebels, but didn’t get into specifics.

"Where we might differ is on exactly the weapons, the delivery, the means, the timing. But frankly, all of us see that the jihadists are gaining more and more ground, more and more visibility and credibility in the ongoing fight against Assad. And the United States has a shrinking window in the ability to make a difference on the ground in the fight for freedom in Syria and in the fight to sustain and stabilize our regional allies," Coons said.

"Well said," McCain chimed in.