House, Senate Separately Tackle Crisis in Syria

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. must accept more Syrian refugees, experts told Congress on Tuesday, but warned that U.S. and European Union resettlement efforts will hardly scratch the surface of the worsening migrant and refugee crisis.
     They also warned of more regional chaos and instability as host countries experience worsening social, economic and security conditions. Refugee populations are adding additional stress to already weak infrastructures, sparking tensions with local communities, they said.
     The witnesses gave testimony before the Senate Relations Committee during its second hearing of a series examining U.S. policy in the Middle East.
     Pushing for greater U.S. leadership on the crisis, the panel said Congress should develop immediate policies focused on protecting civilians in the short term while also focusing on a longer-term economic strategy.
     “We continue to treat the problem as if refugees will go home, when in fact there’s a 17-year average duration of displacement,” Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute for Peace, testified.
     Many refugees are sitting in camps with no way to make a living, she added.
     Several panelists stressed that the lack of jobs and schooling for children is driving migration because refugees don’t see a future for themselves in the camps.
     “What we’ve seen over time is refugees being pushed from poverty to misery,” Refugees International Michel Gabaudan said.
     Though the U.S. has given about $4 billion in aid for relief efforts in Syria and neighboring countries, it has resettled only about 1,800 refugees fleeing regional violence.
     The U.S. admits about 75,000 refugees annually, but the Obama administration plans to boost that number by 25,000 over the next two years.
     Obama’s administration has also committed to taking an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees next year.
     David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, noted that the U.S. has not been doing enough today.
     The admission of “eighteen-hundred people is not fitting for the global leadership role the United States has played over a very long period in refugee resettlement,” he said, adding that the European Union has now surpassed the U.S. in aid contributions.
     Sen. Ben Cardin from Maryland noted that about 4 million Syrians have fled the country, and there are another 7.6 million people displaced within Syria as the conflict enters its fifth year. Another 400,000 are besieged within Syria, the Democratic ranking committee member said.
     Lindborg, of the U.S. Institute for Peace, noted in an interview that an additional 3 million Iraqis have fled from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
     “This isn’t happening far away and just something we can ignore … this affects us,” Lindborg said. “This has not just regional but global implications. And like it or not, American leadership really matters on these things.”
     At the hearing, Lindborg spoke about putting the protection of civilians “chief among the [international community’s] goals.”
     “There is not a serious effort to provide civilian protection, she said. “In the absence of that, people are just being pummeled.”
     The witnesses said Syrian refugees are mostly fleeing the barrel bombs wielded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Though it would provide some immediate relief to stop these bombs, the panelists agreed, they said safe zones are not the answer either.
     “The history of safe zones and no-fly zones for humanitarian purposes is fraught with cases where it didn’t work well, and is filled with moral hazard,” Lindborg said.
     She, along with Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said that a civilian sanctuary should not double as a military base.
     The testimony came in stark contrast to what the Armed Services Committee heard last week from Gen. David Petraeus, who left his post as CIA director in disgrace after pleading guilty to sharing classified information with his mistress.
     In his first appearance before Congress since his 2012 resignation, Petraeus recommended creating a safe zone for civilians where a Sunni-Arab ground force could also train.
     The problem in Syria also made its way into a hearing Tuesday of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
     Panelists in that hearing said that lack of a capable ground force is a key factor in the limited progress of the $3.7 billion U.S.-led effort against ISIL so far.
     Despite the failures of U.S. efforts to train Syrian fighters, a group out of Dartmouth College recommended that the Department of Defense push forward with the effort.
     “I believe the administration’s strategy for Syria remains very nearly the best available in an extraordinarily difficult situation,” according to written testimony from Daniel Benjamin, director of Dartmouth John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.
     Benjamin said the threat of terrorism against the U.S. will be reduced in the long-term, and that the use of drone strikes to kill ISIL’s leadership will throw the organization off balance over time.
     He also stressed that ISIL does not pose a “first tier terrorist threat to the United States,” because the group has not demonstrated interest in launching attacks outside the region. Unlike al-Qaida, the group is more focused on sectarian warfare and the expansion of its caliphate, Benjamin added.
     To that end, Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified that the best strategy for defeating ISIL is taking away its territory. As long as the myth of the caliphate exists, people will flock to it, he said.
     Panelists agreed that the focus of regional allies on removing Assad from power only complicates the efforts to build a capable ground force to fight ISIL.
     Arab-Sunni forces would likely not agree to participate if Assad remains in power, a prospect that seems more plausible with an increased Russian military build-up in Syria, which Gen. Jack Keane told the committee is intended to solidify the Assad regime.
     As chairman of the board for the Institute for the Study of War, Keane summed up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Syria.
     “He’s going to prop up the regime,” Keane said. “That is the main reason he’s there.”
     The Obama Administration has recently expressed a greater willingness to negotiate the timeframe of Assad’s departure.
     Russia carried out its first airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday.

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