Obama administration defends efforts on Syria

John McCain says the fight to topple Damascus regime is no longer a civil war but a regional conflict

US Senator John McCain, center, listens during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, September 4. 2013. (AP/Susan Walsh)
US Senator John McCain, center, listens during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, September 4. 2013. (AP/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials defended US efforts in Syria on Thursday against criticism from Republicans who say Washington has no strategy to find a solution that would end the bloody conflict affecting nations throughout the Mideast.

Robert Ford, US ambassador to Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States is proud of the humanitarian and other assistance it has provided to the Syrian opposition trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s government. He acknowledged that the Syrian people were “deeply disappointed” when the US did not take military action against the Syrian regime, but said the administration is working furiously to arrange a conference in Geneva next month to set up a transitional government and end the bloodshed.

Ford had tense exchanges with two of the committee’s harshest Republican critics.

“You continue to call this a civil war, Ambassador Ford,” said Sen. John McCain. “This isn’t a civil war anymore; this is a regional conflict. It’s spread to Iraq. We now have al-Qaida resurgence in Iraq. It’s destabilizing Jordan. Iran is all in. Hezbollah has 5,000 troops there. For you to describe this as a quote, ‘civil war,’ of course, is a gross distortion of the facts, which again makes many of us question your fundamental strategy because you are — you don’t describe the realities on the ground.”

Ford said he does not think that Assad can win militarily and only has the advantage in a few places like around Aleppo in northern Syria.

McCain was not satisfied, saying Assad’s killing of civilians remained unchecked.

“Come on. … The fact is that he was about to be toppled a year ago, or over a year ago. Then Hezbollah came in. Then the Russians stepped up their effort. Then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard intervened in what you call a, quote, ‘civil war,’ and he turned the tide. And he continues to maintain his position of power and slaughtering innocent Syrian civilians. And you are relying on a Geneva conference, right?”

The prospects for an international peace conference in Geneva to end the war are unclear.

The United States, Russia and the United Nations have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and the opposition together in Geneva to attempt to negotiate a political resolution to the conflict. Efforts renewed in earnest last month to organize the conference, but the Syrian opposition remains deeply divided over whether to attend, while the government refuses to sit down with the armed opposition.

Assad told the Arab League-UN envoy Wednesday that foreign support for the armed opposition must end if any political solution to the country’s conflict is to succeed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights increased its estimate of the death toll of the war, now in its third year. It said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict, up from the previous estimate of 100,000. The new estimate said more than 61,000 of the dead were civilians.

“The problem itself is tragic … and we want to help them,” Ford said in one exchange with Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee. “But ultimately, Senator, Syrians must fix this problem, and ultimately, Senator, it’s going to require them to sit down at a table. The sooner they start, the better. But in the meantime, we will keep helping the opposition, Senator.”

Corker, who has long been critical of the slow pace of aid to Syria, said he thinks the US assistance to Syrian opposition has been an “embarrassment.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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