WASHINGTON: Attempts to negotiate a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war are failing, a U.S. State Department official said, as lawmakers denounced the Obama administration’s response to the country’s turmoil.
“The Geneva II process has faltered,” Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson said Wednesday of talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and rebels that were organized by Russia and the U.S.
“We’ve worked closely with the Russians particularly to try and get them to cooperate with us,” Patterson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s a process that’s largely failed.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the committee’s hearing, which drew no more than four senators at a time, expressed frustration over the war that has killed more than 140,000 people since 2011, according to estimates. They also accused the President Barack Obama’s administration of failing to do more to support rebel forces or punish Assad’s regime.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican, derided some of Patterson’s answers as “major misleading baloney” and said the Obama administration had “zero” policy.
“I can’t imagine you actually saying that in this setting. That would indicate to people that we have a military strategy relative to Syria, and that ... could not be further from the truth,” he said.
Arizona Republican John McCain, a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy, called U.S. Syria policy “a colossal failure.”
“The greatest nation in the world has sat by and watched this genocide taking place,” the senator said.
The panel’s chairman, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, demanded a classified hearing with “whoever is necessary” to get fuller answers to their questions.
About 75 percent of Syrian territory is now out of the regime’s control, according to David Kilcullen, chief executive officer of Caerus Associates, a Washington-based strategy consulting firm. Kilcullen told the committee that both sides believed they could win while neither had sufficient advantage to do so, ensuring the conflict would continue.
Kilcullen recommended a show of force by the U.S. or a demonstration of its willingness to do so.
“At some point we have to start taking the regime down,” Kilcullen said. He proposed a campaign “roughly the size of the Kosovo” operations led by NATO in 1998 and 1999.
“We need to telegraph our willingness to use direct military force,” he said. “If we’re not at least thinking about this or planning for it, it’s extraordinarily unlikely the regime will think we’re strong enough to bother dealing with.”
A military threat may convince Assad that a negotiated political settlement is preferable, Kilcullen said, freeing up resources to deal with the thousands of foreign jihadist fighters who have poured into the country to fight the regime. Militants now control swaths of the east and northwest, posing “a significant threat” to the U.S., Corker said.
Corker and Menendez both questioned the impact that U.S. relations with Russia and Iran – both supporters of the Assad regime – have on U.S. policy. Menendez demanded the answers in a classified hearing.
Patterson said that despite the lack of diplomatic progress, “in our view it’s an important element to keep alive because at some point if the calculus or the balance on the battlefield changes you need essentially to have a process people can resort to.”
In the meantime, she said, the lack of a U.S. government presence in Syria has made it difficult to increase assistance to the Syrian opposition. The prevailing U.S. strategy has been to use $260 million in nonlethal aid to support the opposition.
The U.S. has been “refocusing” its activity in the last year by channeling resources directly to local and provincial governments to maintain basic security and municipal services, she said.
Patterson said $80 million in nonlethal aid to the opposition’s Supreme Military Command – briefly suspended after extremists seized its warehouses – resumed in February, with shipments of medical kits, vehicles and food rations continuing.
Corker faulted the agreement that the Obama administration brokered in September with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, saying the accord let the administration appear to take action on Syria while an additional 40,000 people have been killed by the regime’s barrel bombs.
“The issue with the chemical weapons has been a ruse,” Corker said. “It’s been a shiny object, it’s kept us from really having any kind of coherent policy in Syria.”