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Congress Holds Hearings on Syria Action

Aired September 3, 2013 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: And that will invite much greater danger for the American people, much greater risk for our armed forces, and conceivably, much greater chances of a genuine kind of conflagration that we don't want to see.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. My time's up.

Thank you, Secretary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Cardin.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Well, let me thank all of you for being here, but also thank you very much for your service.

Mr. Chairman, Senator Corker, I thank you very much for arranging this hearing.

It's very clear that the type of conducting that President Assad has done in Syria, the pattern of his actions creating a humanitarian crisis, and now the use of chemical weapons, the evidence that's been presented, it's clear that we have to respond and a military response is justified.

So, I support your efforts. And, Mr. Secretary, the way that you have described it as what I think we need to do. We have to have a tailored mission that deals with degrading and deterring the use of chemical weapons. We need to have it focused on that mission. It's got to be done in a way that protects civilians the best that we can. And it's got to be of very limited duration.

But I just want to come back to the point at that time chairman raised, and your own comments, where you say we should shut that door as tightly as possible when dealing with putting our troops on the ground in Syria.

I have read the resolution that you presented to us. I think it is broader than what you have stated the president's intentions on the mission. And I understand that, and I understand the president's strong desire to keep the mission very tight. And it certainly does not leave open -- it does not close the door on the introduction of ground troops.

I have also heard your comments about the unexpected. Something could happen. I would just point out that the president as commander in chief has the authority, the inherent authority to act in urgent situations where time requires that action. And I would suggest, as you have come to Congress for this authorization, if circumstances change and there's time to come to Congress, you will have the opportunity to come back to Congress and seek our participation.

We are a separate branch of government, as you recall. So I just want to urge you in the strongest possible terms to work with our leadership to draft a resolution that is as tight as we can make it to allow you to carry out the mission that you have defined here today, so that we can go back and tell the American people that we in Congress are supporting your action, but are not leaving open the door for the introduction of American troops into Syria.

I want to talk a little bit about the specific military operations, and I'm going to leave most of this for tomorrow in our discussions. But I just want General Dempsey and Secretary Hagel to understand whether the mission is to degrade the weapons and to deter the use of chemical weapons.

Have you put into that equation the fact that, obviously, Syria is aware that we are contemplating military action and, therefore, may try to change the equation during this period of time to make it more difficult for us to carry out that mission? Has that been brought into your planning stages?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Yes, Senator, it has.

And, you know, time works both ways. You recall about a week-and-a- half ago, there was a significant week of military planning that caused the regime to react. So time works both ways. We have some pretty significant intelligence capabilities, and we continue to refine our targets.

CARDIN: Both of you have indicated your concern about American military involvement in Syria, that it could draw us in, in a way that we do not want to be drawn into an internal conflict. Are you also putting into your plans ways to prevent that type of drawing in of America into the internal conflict in Syria?

HAGEL: Senator, we are. As I noted in my opening statement, we have taken great care and much time in looking at all -- not only the options to present to the president, but the contingencies that may be a consequence of the president selecting one of those options, including what you have just noted.

It is imperfect. As I said, and I think everyone recognizes, there's always risk. We have tried to minimize that risk in every way we can ask, every presentation we have made to the president. The president has insisted on that, collateral damage across the board. So, yes, we have taken a lot of time to focus exactly on your point.

CARDIN: Secretary Kerry, you point out that if we don't act, we're liable to lose some friends. And I just really want to point out, we do have a direct interest here. We not only have humanitarian reason to respond to the use of chemical weapons. We have direct American interests in that region, and we have Americans that are in that region that are at risk if additional chemicals are used. So I see a direct connection to U.S. interests. You say we might lose some friends if we don't act. Why don't we have more participation in the U.S. military response, in addition to just support? It seems to me that this appears to be -- we understand America would be in the lead, but it does not seem like we have a growing list of countries that are actively joining us in the military operation.

KERRY: Well, first of all, there is no definitive list at this point in time, because the president has not made the decision as to specifically which set of choices he's going to operate on.

Secondly, as many countries as we could conceivably need to be able to be helpful in a limited operation have volunteered to be helpful. And they stand ready to take part in any specific operation. And we're very, very comfortable with that.

But the bottom line in many ways remains that we're talking about very specific kinds of capacities that in some cases only the United States of America possesses. And so, you know, that's -- remains open. It's a process that will evolve as this debate evolves and as the president makes his decisions and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military present him with the various options.

And those will probably evolve. As you mentioned, people may make adjustments in Syria. And I can assure the Syrians that General Dempsey and his people were making adjustments as they go along.

CARDIN: Well, I would hope we would have stronger international participation.

Is there a consideration of a role for NATO to play here, considering that one of NATO's partners, Turkey, is on the direct front line here on the use of chemical weapons? Can we -- is that being considered?

KERRY: Well, as you say, is it being considered, everything is being considered.

And all of these things are being evaluated. Discussions are taking place. I will be meeting on Saturday in Vilnius with European ministers. I know this topic will come up. And most of them, they're all members of NATO. So, we will have -- or most of them are, not all of them. So we will have some discussions when we're there.

But I -- at the moment, this is a limited operation, with the scope of support that the president makes a judgment that we ought to have. We will have very broad -- we have already very broad -- I think I have been in -- we have had some 53 nations or countries and organizations have acknowledged that chemical weapons were used here and have condemned it publicly; 31 nations have stated publicly that the Assad regime is responsible.

And I think we're at about 34 countries have indicated that if the allegations are true, that they would support some form of action against Syria. So there's a very broad coalition that's growing of people who believe we ought to take action against Syria. But the question is, you know, whether or not it makes sense for whatever number to be part of it is a decision that our military and the president have to make as we go along here.

CARDIN: I will reserve the rest of the questions for the closed session.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Rubio.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Gentleman will sit down, or I will have the officer remove you. Police will make sure that the committee's in order.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He knows that this nation used (OFF-MIKE)

MENENDEZ: Senator Rubio.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Let me begin by answering a fundamental question that I get asked a lot as we discuss this very important issue. And that is, why do we even care about what's happening in Syria? And I want to make very clear my belief that I think reflects the belief of most of the members of this committee. And that is that what happens in Syria is of vital national interest to the United States and to our national security for reasons that have been already outlined.

The Syrian relationship with Iran is very significant. It's a key part of their ambitions to be the regional power, the dominant regional power. In fact, the Iranians love to brag that Syria gives them a border with Israel.

Number two, Assad is an anti-American supporter of terrorism, a supporter of Hamas. He's a supporter Hezbollah. And, by the way, he's a supporter of al Qaeda in Iraq, the same al Qaeda in Iraq that is responsible for the death and maiming of countless brave young men and women who served our country in uniform.

It's also of interest to us because of the instability that this is creating in Syria, instability that's allowing portions of Syria to quickly become kind of what Afghanistan was before 9/11, the premier operational space for global jihadists from abroad to come train and fight and plan attacks in the future.

And now added to that is this chemical attack, which undermines and the -- the post-World War II world order, which basically said that these things are unacceptable. And allies that look at the United States and our capabilities of living up to our security promises is all at risk now as a result of all of this.

This is why Syria and what is happening in Syria matters to our national interests, why it's so clearly tied to a critical national security interest of the United States. By the way, most, if not all of this was true two years ago when I joined other voices on this committee and in the Senate and beyond that advocated that at that time when Assad was on ropes, the United States should engage in trying to identify moderate elements and equip them so that they became the predominant rebel force in Syria and not others.

But that didn't happen. Instead, the choice was made to lead from behind. The choice was made to watch as this thing unfolded. Others advocated that we should just mind our own business. And what we're seeing here now is proof and an example that when America ignores these problems, these problems don't ignore us, that we can ignore them, but eventually they grow and they come to visit us at our doorstep.

And now we're faced with what we have. In fact, Secretary Kerry, a moment ago, you said that one of the calculations that Assad used in deciding to use chemical weapons was that the U.S. wouldn't do anything about it. Now, I understand perhaps why he made that calculation, because, yes, this was a horrible incident where 1,000 people died. But before this incident, 100,000 people had died, including snipers that were used to pick off civilians, including women that were raped as part of a -- they were going to villages and carry this out. And nothing happened.

So, of course he reached that calculation. So this is a reminder of what happens when we ignore the world, when we look inward sometimes and we ignore these problems. They only get worse and more difficult to solve. And that's the mess that we have here right now. We are left with options, all of which are less than ideal.

And I want to walk through the three that have been presented to us by different voices and then ask specifically about the one the president is considering. The first option is to decide to help Syrians remove Assad and replace a -- a more moderate government. I think that's the ideal outcome, but it has its own complications.

Today, the rebel forces on the ground are not just the moderate rebels. They're not moderate rebels. There are jihadists that now control major portions of the countries. And then other parts of the country are intermingled with these rebel forces, creating a real prospect that after the fall of Assad, a new civil war could be triggered, one that could involve sectarian violence, massacres of minorities, et cetera.

This comes with its own set of complications. The other, what some voices have advocated, is doing nothing. But that would guarantee the following outcome and embolden Assad and embolden Iran, increased instability in the country, because portions of the country will still be ungoverned. And it will also send a message to the world that there is no red line that they should fear crossing.

So, Iran will move forward toward nuclear weapons. North Korea can act crazier, if that's even possible. Our allies in South Korea and Japan may start to doubt their security arrangements with us. Israel may decide it needs to strike Iran unilaterally. Iran will move towards the bomb, which, by the way, won't just be an Iranian bomb.

It will be a Turkish bomb as well and a Saudi bomb and maybe even an Egyptian bomb one day. The third is the action the president is asking us to consider, what he termed, not me, what he called a shot across the bow, a military strike of limited duration and scope that has three goals, as I understand it, that have been outlined here today.

Goal number one is to hold Assad accountable. Goal number two is to deter this behavior in the future. And goal number three is to degrade Assad's capacity to carry out these attacks in the future. This is -- the president wants us to authorize a limited strike that would accomplish these three things.

The questions that I have, quite frankly, I'm a bit skeptical that the act that -- that what the president is asking for will provide the support needed to achieve these objectives and that these objectives are even realistic at this point.

So, here's my first question. And I think I will ask this of Senator -- of General Dempsey.

The calculation that Assad has made is that the reason why he's using these chemical weapons is because he's afraid that, if he doesn't, he could lose this war, be overthrown and killed. That's the calculation that he's made. That's why he used these chemical weapons. He wants to beat the rebels.

So my question is this. Can we -- can we structure an attack that tips that calculation, where he'll basically decide that he would rather risk being overrun by rebels than risking a limited attack from the U.S. if he uses these chemical weapons? He has to decide, I'll use chemical weapons and take on a limited U.S. attack in the future or I'll risk being overrun by the rebels. How are we going to unbalance that and lead him to calculate he's better off risking losing to the rebels?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Well, Senator, I think maybe even more insidious than that, he's reached to point where he thinks of chemical weapons as just another weapon in his arsenal. That's the point that makes this so very dangerous. And I think that as I've provided advice on what targets may be appropriate, I certainly want to degrade his capabilities coming out of this. I want to come out of it stronger than we go into it.

RUBIO: Leads me to my second question. How confident are you and how confident can you express to this committee that you are, that we can, in fact, put in place a military plan that's limited in scope and duration, that can effectively degrade Assad's capability to carry out future chemical attacks?

DEMPSEY: I'm confident in the capabilities we can bring to bear to deter and degrade. And it won't surprise you to know that we will have not only an additional target set, but subsequent target sets, should they become necessary.

RUBIO: And this question is probably of Secretary Kerry, and I think this was asked earlier, but I think it's important to elaborate on it. One of the concerns I've had and have heard others express, is that Assad could take three, five, six days of strikes, maybe longer, maybe shorter, and emerge from that saying, I have faced down the United States and I have held on to power and survived, and at that point, be further emboldened, both domestically and perhaps even abroad. Have we taken that into account?

And I understand your argument that inaction would be worse, but have we taken into account what the implications could be of an Assad that could weather a limited strike and what that could mean for the long- term prospects of the conflict?

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Yes, we absolutely have. For certain, we've taken that into account. He will weather -- I mean, he will weather. The president's -- the president's asking for a limited authority to degrade his current capacity and to deter him from using it again.

He is not asking for permission from the Congress to go destroy the entire regime or to, you know, do a much more extensive kind of thing. That's not what he's asking.

So, he will be able to stand up and no doubt he'll try to claim that somehow this is, you know, something positive for him. But I think General Dempsey has made it clear, and I think we believe deeply, as do others who are knowledgeable about this, in the region, that there is no way that it will, in fact, be beneficial for him. That it will not translate for him on the ground. That the defections that are taking place now and other things that will happen will further degrade his capacity to prosecute going forward.

And I want to emphasize something, I want to come back to it, because I don't want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier. This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground. I just want to make that absolutely clear.

You know, what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential, it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization, in no way be crystal clear. There's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for. And I don't want anybody in the media or elsewhere to misinterpret that coming out of here. As I said out of earlier, and I repeat it again now, that's important.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. And I can assure you, that will be in the resolution.

KERRY: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator?

SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, gentleman, for your testimony.

I agree that we should not turn our back on such a blatant violation of international norms respect to the use of chemical weapons and that if we stand quietly by while a tyrant like Assad uses chemical weapons on his own people, that we will be giving carte blanche to any dictator anywhere in the world to develop and use chemical weapons. I think the question now, as we've all said is, how do we respond specifically? How do we best send a message that it's completely unacceptable to develop, much less use these types of weapon? And how do we do that without inadvertently spreading the conflict beyond the borders of Syria? That's really the question that that we have today.

And we've heard that we want to deter the future use of chemical weapons, but according to the president and to your testimony today, we don't want to tip the scales on the ground. So how do we ensure that we can do that without spreading the conflict throughout the region? And how do we hit Assad hard enough, so that we deter his future use of chemical weapons, and yet don't affect the military outcome on the ground?

KERRY: General, do you want to ask -- address the sort of just military piece and I'll take the other piece?

DEMPSEY: Sure. I think the language about not using American military power to tip the scale is -- would be our direct action. In other words, this resolution is not asking for permission for the president to be able to use the United States Armed Forces to overthrow the regime.

Or on the other hand, back to the earlier questions about developing a moderate regime that has capabilities to be a stabilizing force inside of Syria, that's the path. Our military action, in this case, is very focused on the chemical weapons, but we'll have the added benefit of degrading and we'll have also the added benefit of supporting the diplomatic track and with that, let me turn it over to the secretary.

KERRY: Senator Shaheen, the president has made it very, very clear that the policy of this administration -- and sometimes people have sort of said, you know, questioned precisely what it is, and I'll tell you precisely what it is. The president is asking for the Congress to take steps that will specifically deter and degrade Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons. He is not asking the Congress for authorization to become whole hog involved in Syria's civil war to try to change the regime through military action.

This is a targeted action to deal with the problem of chemical weapons, but there is a separate track which the president had already committed the administration and the country to, which is that Assad must go. That he has lost all moral authority or capacity to ever govern Syria and that he is pursuing that, the president is pursuing that track by helping the opposition, by now having made the decision to lethally arm that opposition, by upgrading the efforts for the opposition to be able to fight the fight, not the United States, the opposition, and to be able to come to a negotiated settlement, because the president is convinced, as I think everybody is, that there is no military solution. That ultimately you want to get to Geneva, you want a negotiated settlement, and under the terms of Geneva 1, there is an agreement which the Russians have signed on to, which calls for a transition government to be created, with a mutual consent of the current regime and the opposition and that transition government will establish the rules of the road for the Syrian people to choose their new government. There is no way possible that by mutual consent, Assad is going to be part of that future. The Russians have agreed that that is, in fact, Geneva 1, and the purpose of the Geneva 2 meeting is to implement Geneva 1.

Now, it's complicated, obviously. How do you get there? And that's part of their struggle. But the president is convinced that as the support to the opposition increases, there is much greater likelihood that you will wind up ultimately with a negotiated settlement.

The alternative is that you stand back and do nothing and Syria, in fact, implodes and becomes an enclave state. There are huge, ungoverned spaces. Al Nusra, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, others, become more of a threat to our friends in the region and the region becomes much more of a sectarian conflagration. That is part of the effort.

SHAHEEN: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey, you made a number of statements throughout the spring, cautioning against intervention in the conflict in Syria. Why do you feel at this point that it's appropriate for us to take action? What's changed?

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Senator, thank you. I'll let General Dempsey respond for himself.

Well, first, very clear intelligence and evidence that that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people. So we are dealing with a new set of realities, based on facts. And I think it is, at least my opinion, that that needs to be addressed, that needs to be dealt with, for the reasons I have noted, I have said in public and also addressed in my statement, I think in what Secretary Kerry and General Dempsey has said, and obviously what the president has said. So that's the most specific reason. The dynamics have changed.

One additional point in regard to your question on this, as to your previous question -- if, in fact, the president is given the authorization from Congress to go forward, and as he's already said, he believes he has within his constitutional power, as commander in chief, to act as well. And he's given his reasons, which we all support, why he came to the Congress. There are parallel actions that would work, along with whatever action the president would take -- opposition strength, which Secretary Kerry has noted. Second, defections within the Syrian government and military, as Secretary Kerry has noted. Other intelligence, other consequences.

And this is about getting to an end game. That end game is a diplomatic settlement. It is driving this toward, what we believe, the president believes, is the only way out of this, if for no other reason, than what Secretary Kerry has noted. We do not want to see the country of Syria disintegrate, result in ungoverned space, which I think the consequences would be devastating for our partners and for our allies, the entire Middle East. Then, we would all have to respond in some way.

So I just add that on to answer your last question. DEMPSEY: Chairman, I'll make it brief. But in response to your question about the past year, over the past year, we've provided a full range of options. And my advice on those options was based on my assessment of their linkage to our national security interests and whether they would be effective.

On this issue that is the use of chemical weapons, I find a clear linkage to our national security interests, and we will find a way to make our use of force effective.

SHAHEEN: Thank you, all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Johnson?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm trying to reconcile, I guess, the two tracks of goals we've got going on here. Military action and negotiated settlement.

Secretary Hagel, you said we are not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria. Isn't that exactly what we're doing? Why aren't we trying to resolve that?

HAGEL: I was referring in my statement, to the authorization to use military force. That, specifically, is not why we are come to the Congress, why the president asked for the Congress' support. As he said, the authorization is for a very specific and focused military action.

JOHNSON: But our stated goal is to remove Assad, remove through a negotiated settlement. Why wouldn't we use this opportunity, military action, to move toward that goal?

HAGEL: Well, that is one option, if those options would range from an invasion or a lot of military options on the table. What the president has said what this authorization is about is a limited authorization for a limited exercise. The goal of removing Assad from office, as the president has stated, is still the policy of this administration.

JOHNSON: General Dempsey, how confident are you that you can calibrate, tailor, fine-tune military action that doesn't have spillover effects? So we keep it to the limited stated goal of, I guess, degrading and deterring?

DEMPSEY: Well, the task was to do just that, to deter and degrade. Not -- and to be limited and focused in scope and duration. I mean, that's the task I've been given.

JOHNSON: How can you calibrate that?

DEMPSEY: Well, we can calibrate it on our side. There is always the risk of escalation on the other, but they have significantly limited capabilities to do so. And most of the intelligence informs us -- we can talk about that in the closed session.

JOHNSON: But what planning is being undertaken right now in case this does spin out of control? We were talking about potential for boots on the ground.

Secretary Kerry, I'm very glad to hear you're bringing into the equation what I think is our number one national security interest.