At the end of last week, retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, held a hearing on U.S. Policy With Syria. She opened the hearing as follows:
This hearing is part two of a Syria hearing we began in September, and while it took a bit longer than we had hoped, we are very pleased to have two of the administration officials most intimately involved with U.S.-Syria policy here today. Two weeks ago, Ambassador Jeffrey laid out the administration’s latest plan and objectives for Syria: first, the enduring defeat of ISIS; second, de-escalation of the conflict and the removal of Iranian forces; and third, a political process under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. I am glad to have Ambassador Jeffrey in his new position as Special Representative for Syria Engagement, and for his more active approach. This hearing is an opportunity for the administration to explain exactly how it plans to achieve those goals.
With at least a half million killed, millions more displaced, and the security of the United States and our allies on the line, the administration owes it to the American people to put forth a comprehensive, effective, and most importantly, achievable, strategy for Syria. After more than seven years of conflict, I am deeply appreciative of our men and women, both in and out of uniform, who have contributed so much of their time, energy, and in too many cases, their lives, in the effort against ISIS and for Syria. Likewise, too many good Syrians have been taken from us, many of whom who were simply families trying to escape the brutality of both ISIS and the Assad regime. And many of whom, like the pro-democracy leader Raed Fares who refused, despite threat after threat, to give in to the murderers and terrorists who took over his country. With assassinations like Raed’s, regime forces continuing to prepare for an offensive in Idlib, the demilitarized zone hanging on by a thread, and chemical weapons used once again this past weekend, it is important that we take a more active approach like Ambassador Jeffrey advocates, to not only prevent another humanitarian disaster and more loss of life, but finally address the root cause of this conflict: Assad and his regime.
I am concerned that we aren’t prioritizing stabilization assistance – in areas liberated from ISIS as well as those targeted by Assad. This does not mean reconstruction assistance, but it does mean the kind of basic services and stabilization needs that would allow local communities to be more independent and resilient, and less susceptible to pro-Assad forces. As Hanin Ghaddar testified at part one of this hearing, Iran and Assad are ethnically and religiously cleansing Sunni communities to create demographic facts on the ground. And if we don’t start to help Syrian communities resist those forces, we are leaving more areas of Syria ripe for Iran and Assad’s influence on one side of the spectrum and a resurgent ISIS on the other. As we’ve learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 17 years, it is not enough to take out the bad guys and hope for the best. We must, with our partners, create the conditions to ensure they don’t come back.
I am sympathetic to the challenges of delivering aid in Syria, especially when it gets diverted to the very people we’re trying to defeat. In 2016, Ted and I held a hearing with the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, and USAID’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG, on a GAO report that Ted, Gerry, and I had commissioned, which found weaknesses in our humanitarian aid programs in Syria. GAO had found that most of our implementing partners were not assessing the risk of fraud and recommended that USAID and State strengthen their own fraud oversight programs, as well as those of our partners. At the same time, OIG announced that it had opened 25 investigations of fraud allegations.
USAID and State have made some improvements in the years since, but we continue to hear about diversions of U.S. assistance in Syria, most notably a recent incident in which, according to OIG, one NGO’s employees “knowingly diverted USAID-funded food kits” to Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. While USAID correctly suspended this program and others, and I am, as I said, very sympathetic to the difficulty of the mission, we cannot allow ourselves to be deterred. It is incumbent upon our administration to put the most rigorous and effective monitoring and evaluation systems in place and then ensure these programs continue.
We can’t afford to be cutting stabilization assistance – never mind humanitarian aid – when every other player, from Assad to Russia to Iran to Turkey to China, is deeply involved and working to shape a new Syria that will undermine U.S. security interests. I look forward to hearing from both our witnesses how the administration plans to protect U.S. interests in Syria and exactly how each of its programs, goals, and objectives fit into, what I hope, is a strategy for the long-term.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was first elected to Congress in a special election in 1989. She did not seek reelection this year.