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ENGEL OPENING STATEMENT AT FULL COMMITTEE HEARING "SYRIA: WEIGHING THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION'S RESPONSE"

Washington, D.C.– Ranking Member Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the below remarks as prepared for delivery at today’s Committee hearing, “Syria: Weighing the Obama Administration’s Response.”

“I’d like to welcome Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey to the Committee for this important hearing, which will address the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, a serious threat to the national security interests of the United States and our allies.

Many of you know I have been following the Middle East for many years, but in particular, I've spent an enormous amount of time on Syria.  The Syria Accountability Act of 2003, which I authored, is the landmark statement of American policy toward Syria, and imposed sanctions on Damascus in large part due to its chemical weapons and other WMD.  In March of this year, I introduced a bipartisan bill that would authorize the President to arm fully vetted members of the moderate Syrian opposition.   So, when I talk about Syria, I'm speaking from years of experience, hours of hearings, and scores of meetings with US and foreign officials.

Mr. Chairman, we have all seen the images of the lifeless bodies of Syrian men, women, and children – at least 400 children -- neatly lined up in rows, wrapped in white sheets.  Their bodies appeared to have no outward physical injuries.  Entire families killed in their homes in the blink of an eye.

Our intelligence agencies have assessed with high confidence that these innocent civilians were killed by sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the UN Security Council, and outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.  They have also concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the Assad regime is responsible for the use of these horrific weapons.

I strongly agree with President Obama that the United States must respond to this flagrant violation of international law with a limited military strike to deter the further use of chemical weapons and degrade the Assad regime’s ability use them again. 

But the issue we confront today is much bigger than the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  We are talking about the credibility of America as a global power.  We are talking about sending a clear message to the dictators in Tehran and Pyongyang that there will be serious consequences for flouting the will of the international community, and that the US backs its words with action.  

Iran, in particular, is watching very carefully to see if the United States is willing to stand up for its vital interests in the region, and the interests of our allies.  They are a central player in the Syrian civil war, providing weapons, money, advice, and manpower to the Assad regime, and supporting the intervention of their terrorist proxy, Hezbollah.  And according to the IAEA, they are moving full speed ahead with efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

I believe that Congress must authorize the Commander-in-Chief to use limited military force against the Assad regime, and I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting such an authorization.  But we should not give the President a blank check.  The authorization measure we take up must clarify that any strike should be of a limited nature, and that there should be no American boots on the ground in Syria.

While it is critically important for the U.S. to hold the Assad regime accountable for the use of chemical weapons, we must also focus on developing a larger strategy to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis, support our regional partners, and ultimately find a path forward that brings a lasting peace for the Syrian people. 

As I mentioned earlier, in March I introduced the bipartisan Free Syria Act, legislation that would increase humanitarian aid and authorize the President to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance to Syria’s moderate opposition.  I continue to believe that the moderate opposition is key to Syria’s future, and that we must redouble our efforts to support them as soon as possible.  I know many members on both sides of the aisle are struggling with the issue of using force in Syria.  We are all trying to do the right thing for our constituents, for our country, and for our national security.  Questions of war and peace are always difficult, and I’m proud that we are treating them with the utmost seriousness in this Committee. 

But in the days before we take any vote, I encourage my colleagues to ask themselves these questions:  If we do not pass the authorization measure, what message will Assad get?  What message will Iran receive?  Hezbollah?  Our allies?  We have to live up to our commitments.

Mr. Chairman, I’d like thank you for calling this important hearing, and I look forward to the testimony of our distinguished witnesses.”

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