Menendez Opening Statement at Hearing on Crisis in Northern Syria

Menendez Opening Statement at Hearing on Crisis in Northern Syria

“The President’s effective abandonment of American interests in Syria, opening the door for Turkey’s incursion into Northeastern Syria, has unequivocally harmed American national security, potentially increased the threat of terrorism against the homeland and against Americans, and solidified Russian and Iranian political and military power across Syria and beyond.”

 

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening remarks at a hearing titled: “Assessing the Impact of Turkey's Offensive in Northeast Syria.” Testifying before the committee were Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and Matthew A. Palmer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

“As the pause in hostilities expires as we sit here, it is clear that the United States has been sidelined,” said Ranking Member Menendez. “Russia and the murderous Assad regime are calling the shots. We don’t even have clarity about whether and where U.S. troops might remain. If there was any doubt before, Erdogan’s intentions are clear: an ethnic cleansing mission in Northeastern Syria at the expense of broader regional stability, including the fight against ISIS, and of partnership and cooperation with the United State and other NATO allies.”

 

Senator Menendez’s full remarks as delivered can be found below:

“First of all, Mr. Chairman, let me thank you for holding a hearing as quickly and propitiously as this one. I think that the urgency of now, as it relates to Syria and our interests, cry out for a hearing like this. I appreciate and applaud your quick response to it. I want to thank Ambassador Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary Palmer for coming before the committee. Ambassador, I understand you came out of retirement for this post… I am not going to suggest you need a mental check, but I applaud your commitment to serving your country. I think it’s incredibly important.

Ambassador Jeffrey, we understand that you and Ambassador Satterfield, and the rest of our diplomatic corps and military leaders on the ground, spent the past months doing the work of diligent diplomacy—balancing an increasingly belligerent NATO ally and a militia force in pursuit of defeating ISIS in Syria.

However, your recent efforts were hamstrung from their outset—since December of last year—when President Trump made abundantly clear that he was more swayed by President Erdogan’s manipulative threats and persuasions than advice from his own diplomatic and military corps.

Indeed, the President’s decisions over the past month are yet another betrayal of U.S. foreign policy to Russia. A betrayal of our Kurdish partners who fought and died alongside us in the battle against ISIS—who are now throwing in their lot with the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian government.  A betrayal of our ally Israel, as the current chaos further empowers Iran’s pursuit of a land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean.  And a gift to ISIS which has been given the time and space to regroup. As well as thousands of civilians are continuing to flee even under this so-called ceasefire.

Everyone in the region is recalibrating their relationship with the United States. As thousands of Kurds who we once called partners pelt U.S. troops with rocks and potatoes, President Erdogan met and held a press conference with President Putin today in Sochi, where he said, ‘we will continue to make big steps with my dear friend, Mr. Putin, to provide a long-lasting peace and stability to Syria.’ The betrayal is fully in view in that press conference, where Russia has agreed to join Turkey in cutting a swath of land for Turkey that ultimately, at the end of the day, is a cleansing of Kurds who have historically had these as part of where they have lived going back in time.  

As the pause in hostilities expires as we sit here, it is clear that the United States has been sidelined. Russia and the murderous Assad regime are calling the shots. We don’t even have clarity about whether and where U.S. troops might remain. If there was any doubt before, Erdogan’s intentions are clear: an ethnic cleansing mission in Northeastern Syria at the expense of broader regional stability, including the fight against ISIS, and of partnership and cooperation with the United State and other NATO allies.

NATO members commit to upholding principles laid out in the articles of the North Atlantic charter, including solidarity with allies in the alliance as well as dedication to democratic principles and practice.  In recent years, Turkey’s behavior has belied nearly every single one of those principles. Purchasing the S-400 air defense system from NATO’s main opponent, Russia, and developing increasingly close relations with the Kremlin. I know that I hear the Majority Leader and even some of my colleagues suggest that we have to worry about not pushing Turkey too far into Russia’s arms. They’re there. They bought the S-400. They could have bought the U.S. Patriot missile system, interoperable as a NATO ally. They were meeting with Russia in Iran and Astana about the future of Syria. And they strike a deal with Russia to ultimately pursue their interest.

Erdogan has cracked down on human rights and eroded democratic institutions in the country. The most journalists imprisoned anywhere in the world are not in North Korea, Iran or Russia.  They are in Turkey. And Erdogan’s aggression in the region extends to the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus where Turkish military ships bully international energy companies conducting legitimate exploration activities. And over the weekend, the New York Times reported on Turkey’s interest to pursue nuclear weapons.  This is not the behavior of a constructive democratic actor or NATO ally. 

But I’m hoping we can use today’s hearing to get a full assessment of how the United States is now pursuing our interests on the ground in Syria. The President’s effective abandonment of American interests in Syria, opening the door for Turkey’s incursion into Northeastern Syria, has unequivocally harmed American national security, potentially increased the threat of terrorism against the homeland and against Americans, and solidified Russian and Iranian political and military power across Syria and beyond. 

The American people are smart enough to see through the President’s hollow claims of fulfilling a campaign promise to bring American troops out of the Middle East—he has simply moved most of the troops from Syria into Iraq, where leadership in Iraq have said that they cannot stay there—and has also sent thousands more to Saudi Arabia over the past year. How is that, ‘getting out of the entanglements in the Middle East?’

So, as we must when Presidents do not, the Congress has stepped in to put America’s interest first. I was pleased to join Senators Young, Murphy, and Gardner from this committee in introducing a resolution condemning Turkey’s actions, calling on the President to reconsider his decisions, and for a comprehensive strategy against ISIS.

Moreover, as the Chairman has mentioned, we have worked together on legislation to address not just Turkey’s actions, but calling on the Administration to submit a comprehensive review of our counter-ISIS strategy, humanitarian and stabilization assistance for Kurds in Syria in areas liberated from ISIS, accountability for crimes against humanity, and sanctions in Russia as well.  

Mr. Chairman I look forward to working with you to move these bills through committee and to the floor. I think the fierce urgency of now continues to dictate that we move expeditiously.” 

 

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