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A Way Forward After Three Years Of the Syrian Crisis

Mar 16, 2014 | Blog

On this third anniversary of the start of the conflict in Syria, we remember the 140,000 Syrians who have lost their lives, and we pray for those still living through this ongoing nightmare. 

Three years ago this week, the Syrian people took to the streets to demand the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. Those men, women and children demonstrated peacefully against the Assad regime’s brutality. Their demands for accountability and the freedoms others enjoy were met with beatings and bullets. 

Since those early days, the Assad regime has turned to snipers, indiscriminate shelling, barrel bombs, and even chemical weapons in its efforts to destroy the will of the Syrian people and cling to power.

Years ago, when the moderate opposition was appealing for American support, I urged President Obama to weigh in on the side of those who favored freedom to the intolerance and repression of Assad’s rule. Many of us advocated for sanctions and tougher measures against Russian and Iranian entities that are bolstering the regime.

Yet President Obama failed to act. He was hesitant in his support for the moderate secular opposition. Unbelievably, President Obama and Secretary Kerry placed their hope for a solution to the conflict in negotiations that hinged on diplomatic dialogue with “partners” like Vladimir Putin, the Iranian regime and Bashar al-Assad. And, when the Administration did propose military action, they said it would be “unbelievably small” and did not offer a clear strategy for how it would result in Assad being replaced by a moderate, secular government. Further, this military action was not designed to help empower the opposition in our shared goal of seeing Assad go, but was intended to be a retaliatory slap on the wrist for Assad crossing Obama’s “red line.” 

Today, the Syrian people are paying the high costs of this delay, inaction, and lack of focus. 

Millions of Syrians have fled their homes and are now refugees, creating what some have called the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in modern times. An entire “lost generation” of Syrians is growing up without permanent homes, consistent education, or much hope for the future. 

Syria’s neighbors are under strain, with instability spreading as the conflict now enters its fourth year. Meanwhile, Syria’s allies – including Iran, Hezbollah and Russia – have been emboldened by their success in bolstering the Assad regime. Assad is more secure than he has been at any time throughout this sectarian conflict and Syria is now becoming the premier operational area for jihadists in the world, who are already threatening Europe and the United States.

We don’t have the luxury of looking away. We can’t continue to ignore the Syrian people in their time of need. The strategic consequences to U.S. security are too great. 

We need to renew our efforts to identify and work with moderate members of the opposition. I’ve called for this to be done overtly so we can be clear about who we are supporting and with what capabilities. Additionally, we need to ensure that the growing extremist threat that is spreading across the Levant does not lead to attacks against Europe or the U.S. homeland. We need to immediately impose tough sanctions on Russian and Iranian entities and individuals supporting Assad’s war machine. We need to ensure that our allies in the region have adequate support to deal with the pressures of the conflict next door. Senator Reid can do his part by allowing a vote on a Bill (S960) approved by the Foreign Relations Committee in July 2013, which gives the President additional tools to accomplish these goals.

The President should prepare and submit to Congress a strategy to deal with the humanitarian toll of the conflict, as Senator Tim Kaine and I, along with 17 of our colleagues, recently requested him to do.

It is not certain that these actions will bring an end to the pain and suffering in Syria anytime soon. Because of the administration’s delay at every stage of this conflict, our challenge has only become greater. But we cannot give up, both because of our own security interests as well as our values.