- By Josh Rogin
The United States must work to counter the rising tide of extremism inside Syria, the U.S. ambassador to Syria will testify in the Senate Thursday.
Ambassador Robert Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones, and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Daniel Glaser are set to testify Thursday afternoon at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN). Their testimony comes one day after al Qaeda in Iraq announced it was joining forces with the leading extremist coalition in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, a group the U.S. government has classified as a foreign terrorism organization.
The Cable has obtained copies of the testimony of all three officials ahead of the hearing.
"The Assad regime has created an environment that fuels the growth of extremism, and al-Qaeda linked groups are working to exploit the situation for their own benefit. There is a real competition now between extremists and moderates in Syria and we need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance," Ford will testify, according to his prepared remarks.
"With each passing day, the regime is shrinking, as its grip on power and territory weakens. But
the opposition’s progress on the ground comes at a terrible cost," he will say. "Saving the Syrian state from humanitarian disaster, extremist influences, or state fragmentation, will not be easy, but it is critical to protect our interests and those of our partners in the region.
Ford will testify that the Syrian opposition must chart a path of inclusiveness and pluralism when designing the new shape of the future Syrian state, assuring minority groups that were favored by the regime that they will be safe in Syria after the fall of President Bashar al-Assad.
He will also tout U.S. efforts to help the Syrian opposition through the provision of communications equipment and training of local political and civil society leaders operating in rebel-controlled areas.
Ford will not mention in his opening remarks whether reports are true that U.S. President Barak Obama has approved an interagency recommendation to begin providing the armed Syrian opposition with non-lethal military items such as body armor and night-vision goggles.
Jones will testify that although Assad’s grip on power is weakening, March was the deadliest month in the two year long conflict, with more than 6,000 dead. She will also warn about the extremist influence coming from both inside and outside Syria.
"In addition to the devastating human toll, we face an expanding extremist threat, and a few days ago al Qaeda announced the extension of its ‘Islamic State’ in Syria," Jones will testify. "Iran’s role in perpetuating the bloodshed inside Syria is well known. Through its ongoing provision of personnel, guidance, and material and financial assistance, Iran is helping the Assad regime continue its repression and systematic violence against the Syrian people. Iran is joined in this effort by Hizballah, which also provides strong operational support to Assad."
The United States is still focused on a political solution to the Syria crisis to be negotiated between the regime and the opposition, based on the plan announced in Geneva last year, according to Jones.
"We believe that the best way to end the Syrian crisis is through a negotiated political solution. The regime and its supporters will fight to the last person standing. To get to a sustainable peace, Syrians need a political solution that assures all citizens of their rights," she will say.
Glaser will outline to the committee the sanctions Treasury has imposed on both the regime and its enablers abroad.
"U.S. and international sanctions are a key component of the broader U.S. and international community’s effort to achieve this goal, and are designed to deprive the Assad regime of the financial means it requires to support the relentless campaign of violence against the Syrian people," Glaser will testify.
Senators at the hearing are expected to press the officials on several issues, including the reported use of chemical weapons in Aleppo and Damascus last month, the safety and security of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, and the broader reluctance of the Obama administration to increase its support to the Free Syrian Army.
The administration is also resisting congressional efforts to bolster sanctions on the Syrian regime through new legislation proposed by committee members Sens. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). Casey and Rubio also joined a growing chorus of lawmakers Thursday calling for the establishment of safe zones in liberated parts of Syria.
"We also join our colleagues on both sides of the aisle who have called on the Obama administration to explore additional actions to help create space for this new transitional government to function, by defending liberated territory from the Assad regime’s jets and missiles," they wrote in Politico. This may require the use of U.S. and allied military assets. Although getting involved in another conflict in the Middle East is no one’s first choice, the consequences of the status quo in Syria are mounting. We must act before it is too late and we get dragged into a broader conflict on terms that are not our own."