Senators unleash criticism of Obama administration over handling of war in Syria


US Foreign Relation Committee Ranking Member Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, questions the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during a committee hearing about "Syria after Geneva" on Capitol Hill March 26. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Lawmakers unleashed a bipartisan barrage of criticism at the Obama administration Wednesday over Syria, charging that it had no strategy to reverse the course of a war that President Bashar al-Assad appears to be winning, or to stem the growing threat from extremists who dominate the anti-Assad opposition.

Anne Patterson, the State Department’s senior diplomat on the Middle East, largely agreed with the specifics raised at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, saying, “We’re not doing enough to help the moderate opposition.” Overall, she acknowledged, administration policy is working “not very well.”

But when Patterson said that questions about possible U.S. military options in Syria could be discussed only in a classified hearing, the senior senators of both parties exploded.

“Major baloney,” shouted Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the panel. “That would indicate to people that we actually have a military strategy relative to Syria. That could not be further from the truth . . . that’s the most major, misleading baloney I’ve heard since I’ve been in the U.S. Senate.”

“I’m not going to be bullied into answering this,” Patterson replied.

The estimated death toll from the violence in Syria is more than 146,000 as the conflict enters its fourth year. The Post's Liz Sly explains the impact on the region and what we can expect moving forward. (The Washington Post)

“I assure you the administration has no military options on the table,” Corker countered. “What is your strategy? I don’t see that we have one other than letting people kill each other off.”

The snappish session marked the public return to a controversial subject that has been pushed from headlines in recent weeks by Ukraine and the missing Malaysian airliner.

Although Patterson said the administration is reviewing its policy on Syria, senior officials in the administration and allied foreign governments have acknowledged that there are few new ideas on the table. Assad remains in power — with help from Russia and Iran — nearly three years after President Obama said he must step down.

The largely secular opposition that the administration calls the “moderate” rebel fighters is divided and increasingly overwhelmed by al-Qaeda-linked opposition groups, and U.S. intelligence has expressed growing concern about the situation.

No further peace negotiations are planned after U.S.-backed talks failed in January in Geneva.

Although Obama’s “red line” of Assad’s chemical weapons use was crossed last year, a planned U.S. airstrike was called off. The United States and Russia subsequently negotiated Assad’s agreement to relinquish the weapons in a process that has proceeded slowly but somewhat successfully.

With no appetite for direct military intervention, administration efforts to arm opposition fighters in a covert but less-than-secret CIA program have had little momentum. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the primary weapons providers, although they disagree — despite U.S. efforts to bring them together — about which opposition groups to aid.

Meanwhile, at least 140,000 civilians are believed to have been killed, and the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq are overwhelmed with millions of Syrian refugees. A U.N. Security Council resolution in January that ordered combatants on all sides to stop blocking humanitarian aid to besieged communities in Syria has had little apparent effect.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, set the stage for Corker’s incredulity when he opened the hearing by asking Patterson whether the administration is considering “any military actions that could change the calculus that Assad” can win a military victory.

After a bit of testy back-and-forth, Patterson said she “wouldn’t be at liberty to discuss issues in a pre-decisional stage” that would be “of a classified nature.”

“I have a problem with a generic answer to a generic question that I can’t believe is classified,” Menendez said. In his experience, he said, “what I read in the press is what I hear in these [classified] hearings.”

In one of the few moments of respite for Patterson, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) pointed out that, while the committee last year gave approval for a U.S. military strike, both the full Senate and the House had indicated they would not. “If we’re going to be frustrated, we should be frustrated,” Kaine said. “But Congress pretty much said they didn’t support it.”

Thomas M. Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, who testified with Patterson, said that after a number of delays, about half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons have been removed from the country under the U.S.-Russia deal.

“We believe there are no obstacles to completing the removal of the declared stockpile in the month of April,” Countryman said. Plans to destroy the weapons by the end of June will be “on time or very close,” he said.

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