WASHINGTON — Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered a stern tongue lashing to Ambassador Anne Patterson on Wednesday as they questioned Obama administration policies that have failed to end the brutal regime of Syria President Bashar Assad.
Patterson, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, acknowledged that there have been failures but insisted that the United States is taking steps to accelerate support for civilian opposition to the Assad government and to bolster support for neighboring countries where refugees from the three-year-long Syrian conflict have fled.
“I’m aware members of this committee our not satisfied with our progress to date. Neither are we,” said Patterson, a Fort Smith native who has served as ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan.
The most heated exchange came from Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who accused the administration of having no policy in Syria and admonished Patterson for saying otherwise and for implying the Obama administration is considering military options.
Patterson had been asked earlier about military options and declined to answer in an open hearing, suggesting instead that such questions be left to a classified briefing.
“I can’t imagine you saying that in this setting. That would indicate to people that we actually have a military strategy relative to Syria and that could not be further from the truth,” Corker said. “I find that answer, from a friend and someone I respect, to be one of the most major misleading baloney I’ve heard since I’ve been in the U.S. Senate.
Corker went on to complain that the Obama administration had vigorously opposed efforts in Congress to authorize military force in Syria. He also claimed that the focus on removing chemical weapons from Syria was a mistake because the negotiated settlement allowed Assad to remain in power and to continue the slaughter of civilians with conventional weapons.
Corker noted that 40,000 Syrians have been killed by barrel bombs since August and Assad has been strengthened to the point where he sees no need to negotiate or remove himself from power.
“There is no military strategy,” Corker said.
Patterson sought to clarify her earlier remarks, noting that the administration believes that there has to be a negotiated settlement. And, reiterated that she would not speak publicly about any military options that may or may not be under consideration.
“I’m not going to get into this, and I’m not going to be, in effect, bullied into answering this,” she said.
Patterson struggled to offer any tangible policies that the administration is pursuing within Syria.
“We are trying to support the moderate opposition,” she said.
Patterson focused, instead, on efforts to contain the conflict by bolstering support to neighboring nations and seeking to reduce Jihadist elements that have flocked to Syria from around the world.
Corker restated his view that there is no strategy in Syria.
“We haven’t had a strategy in Syria since day one,” he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, who chairs the committee, seemed irritated that Patterson would not offer even a general response in public to his question about military options, particularly since she had stated that a top concern is changing the battlefield calculus that has emboldened Assad.
“I don’t want to go to a classified hearing with what I read in the New York Times,” he said.
Menendez insisted that Patterson be prepared to answer the following questions or not bother setting up a classified session:
- What are all the military options being considered and which have been selected?
- What overt and covert actions have been taken to support Syrian rebels?
- What happens is undisclosed chemical weapons are found? And, what are the consequences of Syria failing to destroy all its chemical weapons infrastructure by June 30th?
“That’s what we want to know,” Menendez said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also criticized policy failures in Syria calling the Obama’s unwillingness to “make the case” for U.S. military assistance a “colossal failure.”
“We’ve watched the slaughter take place and we knew what they needed, and they needed anti-tank and anti-air capability,” McCain said. “We watched as Assad succeed and consolidate his power. Meanwhile, it went from what was basically a civil war to a regional conflict — destabilizing the neighbors, mass exodus of refugees, and the policy of this government, this president, was to do nothing … and the slaughter goes on — 150,000 people.”