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House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Syria

Aired September 4, 2013 - 14:30   ET


REP. WILLIAM KEATING (D), MASSACHUSETTS: So if you could, and I'm giving you plenty of time I hope, can you just expand upon what your concerns were and maybe are that you had in the past that you stated, so we have a better understanding of what they are and giving you enough time too to see how - what your views might be on how we can mitigate that or navigate around those concerns in the situation we are in right now.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Yes, I want to separate support for the opposition from acting in a limited focus way to degrade the Assad regime from use of chemical weapons because the former, the support for the opposition does come with some risk of slippery slope of not entirely understanding when that support ends and how much it has to grow over time, which is why I'm mostly supportive of helping the opposition by their development, by their training and equip and not by becoming their military arm.

Separate that from what we're here for today. In my view militarily, the fact that the Assad regime has increased its use of chemicals over time to the point where it was a weapon intended to terrorize a small portion of a particular neighborhood and to send a message to the opposition, to where now in the most recent case it was used to literally attempt to clear a neighborhood. They've reached the point now where Assad is using chemical weapons as just another military tool in his arsenal.

That runs great risk for Syria. It runs risk in the region. It runs risk in the globe. I'm able to with some integrity, with a lot of integrity, come here before you today and make that distinction that we should do something in our national interests based on the use of chemical weapons without committing to supporting the opposition to overthrow the regime.

KEATING: Was part of that slippery slope, General, was that partly a concern about how other countries or how other factions could be taking our actions? Because even limited sense, we are helping the opposition because we're attacking the Assad government. So in that respect, was that any concern you had prior to that and how do you mitigate that now?

DEMPSEY: We always considered not only what effect our actions would have on our partners in the region, the Turks, the Jordanians, the Israelis, and even the Iraqis for that matter, with what impact it would have potentially on our potential adversaries. Of course, that's always been a concern, but -- a concern and a consideration. But when something reaches the level where I think it has direct impact on our national security then the overriding consideration is not what others think but what we think.

KEATING: Thank you, General. Very quickly, ranking member in emerging threats there, NATO, there was a president in 1999 where NATO did move without U.N. Security Council approval. Do you think there's hope for them moving not just individually as countries? Have you exhausted everything in terms of trying to get NATO support as an organization? I'll ask either secretary that question.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I apologize. I was just reading a note from them. Can you repeat that?

KEATING: It was about NATO, the 1999 president where they moved forward without that Security Council approval. Is there any hope in doing that organizationally going forward?

KERRY: I doubt it, but I can't tell you until I have the meeting that we're slated to have this weekend. I'll get a better sense of that. I would say to Congressman Moreno with respect to body bags that he drew, we had I think it was about a 28-day campaign, maybe 30-day campaign in Kosovo and Bosnia. There are over 30,000 sorties of our aircraft and so forth, none of that is contemplated here, none of which, and there was zero casualties, zero.

REPRESENTATIVE ED ROYCE, CHAIRMAN, HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: We should go to Jeff Duncan of South Carolina at this time. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DUNCAN (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I can't discuss the possibility of U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war without also talking about Benghazi. The administration has a serious credibility issue with American people due to unanswered questions surrounding the terrorist attack in Benghazi almost a year ago. When you factor in the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the AP and James Rosen issues, fast and furious, and then NSA spying programs, bottom line is that there's a need for accountability and trust building from the administration.

To paraphrase Frederick Nitche, he said I'm not upset over you not telling me the truth. I'm upset because from now on I can't believe you. The administration has a credibility issue. In my opinion Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, Benghazi is germane to the discussions in Syria because, as you stated Mr. Secretary, the world was and is watching for our response, but after almost a year of not bringing anyone to justice in Benghazi, they are watching our response.

Mr. Kerry, your predecessor asked what difference does it make now? Well, this is the difference, Mr. Secretary. These issues call into question the accountability of this administration, its commitment to the personnel on the ground and the judgment that it uses when making these determinations. The American people deserve answers before we move forward talking about military involvement in Syria.

Section 4 of your testimony today said this is about accountability. Sure it is. The American people deserve answers about Benghazi before we move forward with military involvement in Syria's civil war. This is a picture. You may not see it from there. This is a picture of Tyron Woods given to me by his father, Charles Woods, a Navy SEAL. The Woods' family deserves answers. He was killed in Benghazi.

America deserves answers before we send another man or woman, the caliber of Ty Woods into harm's way especially on another country's civil war, especially when there's no clear indication that there's an imminent threat to the United States. I don't question that chemical weapons were used in Syria. I've looked at the classified briefings. I do ask that if so where are the other signatory countries of the chemical weapons convention as U.S. beats the drums of war against this regime in Syria.

I have spoken to hundreds of constituents. This represents about 300 e-mails that my office has gotten and not a one, not a one member in my district in South Carolina or the e-mails of people that have contacted my office say go to Syria and fight this regime. To a letter they say no. Do not go into Syria. Don't get involved in their civil war. I spoke to eighth graders about 150 eighth graders yesterday, they get it. We shouldn't be drug into someone else's civil war when there are no good guys to get behind here.

I can only envision an escalation of this current conflict. Same administration quick to involve the U.S. and Syria now was reluctant to use the same resources at its disposal to attempt to rescue the four brave Americans that fought for their lives in Benghazi. Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that's evacuated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. forces in past conflicts. The same is true for the president and the vice president.

Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you abandoned past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly. The reason I say that Benghazi is germane to our discussions on Syria is this, Secretary Kerry, have there been efforts on the part of the United States directly or indirectly to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels and that would also include facilitating transfer of weapons from Libyan rebels to Syrian rebels.

KERRY: Have there been efforts to --

DUNCAN: To put weapons in the hands of Syrian rebels and also transfer weapons from Libya to Syria.

KERRY: Let me begin, Congressman, by challenging your proposition that I've never done anything except advocate caution because I volunteered to fight for my country and that wasn't a cautious thing to do when I did it. Secondly --

DUNCAN: Mr. Secretary --

KERRY: I'm going to finish, congressman. I am going to finish. When I was in the United States Senate, I supported military action in any number of occasions including Grenada, Panama. I can run a list of them. I'm not going to sit here and be told by you that I don't have a sense of what judgment is with respect to this. We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and "Fast and Furious."

DUNCAN: Absolutely, I want to talk about Benghazi, four Americans lost their lives. I have sympathy for the people in Syria. I do think there should be a worldwide response. We should act cautiously.

KERRY: We are acting cautiously. We are acting so cautiously that the president of the United States was accused of not acting because he wanted to have sufficient evidence and he wanted to build a case properly.

DUNCAN: It's been 15 days.

KERRY: Congressman -- Mr. Chairman, point of privilege here. This is important. I think this is important. I think it is important whether or not we're going into Syria in a way that the congressman describes, which I think most people in America don't want to do. We don't want to do that. That's why the president said no boots on the ground. This is not about getting into Syria's civil war. This is about enforcing the principle that people shouldn't be allowed to gas their citizens with impunity.

And if we don't vote to do this, Assad will interpret from you that he's free to go and do this any day he wants to. That's what this is about. Not getting involved in Syria's civil war. So let's draw the proper distinction here, Congressman. We don't deserve to drag this into yet another Benghazi discussion when the real issue here is whether or not the Congress is going to stand up for international norms with respect to dictators that have only been broken twice until Assad, Hitler and Saddam Hussein. If we give license to someone to continue that, shame on us.

ROYCE: We go now to Mr. Davis Hesalini of Rhode Island.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and the ranking member by convening this meeting. I want to thank our three witnesses --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take a quick break right now. You've been listening to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about the use of force, potentially use of force by the U.S. against Syria. We'll be right back after this.


TAPPER: Welcome back. I'm Jake Tapper. I want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is CNN special coverage of the crisis in Syria. We've been listening to the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on whether or not the U.S. should use force in Syria. Let's take a listen.

KERRY: -- and that's the U.N. and the U.N. Security Council, as recently as a few weeks ago when this event took place, our representatives at the U.N. attempted along with other allies to put a resolution in front of the Security Council that would have simply condemned the event. Not assigning any blame at all. Just condemned the use of action and the Russians said no. They blocked it. That is what set us into this path of believing that we have to act in a way that has an effect of deterring Assad from the use of these weapons.

Now even if the U.N. did pass something, even you had some sanction, if it isn't meaningful in a way that will deter action and no one has yet contrived that some, you know, piece of paper to change this man's calculation with respect to what his fighting for. So I think the judgment has been made that the only way to have an impact, the only way you're going to hold him accountable now is to make it clear to him that this will in fact detract from his ability to abuse his people and to use his force to stay in power.

CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, I think what the secretary said is exactly right. I would add two things. There are a number of tracks that we're on right now to accomplish what you're talking. Secretary Kerry's diplomatic track, which has been ongoing and intense, our reaching out to our allies all over the world, I was in Asia last week with 15 defense ministers from all over Asia Pacific discussing this, meeting with leaders of countries in those areas, our NATO allies.

All three of us have been talking to our counterparts from countries all over the world. What the White House is doing and what the president is doing so working through institutions. We're still involved with the United Nations. Those tracks are being run in addition to what we're talking about here, one exact point on the purpose of this hearing.

General Dempsey said this morning at the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked about the violation of the chemical weapons norm, a hundred year old norm. Is it that important? Is it that big a deal? One of the points that General Dempsey made, which is exactly right and we start here, this is a threat to our interest and our forces and to our country allowing a tyrant to continue to get away with the use of chemical weapons. That's a real threat against us.

ROYCE: Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Gentlemen, thank you. I know you've had a couple of very long weeks. I am about to support this, but I do want to say at the very beginning my disapproval of the president's policies in the Middle East. I believe part of the reason we're having difficulty rallying an international coalition is because they don't see the United States having led on this until recently.

But that said, as a veteran of the military, as a current serving military pilot in the International Guard, I am war weary as many Americans are war weary. I want to remind Americans what one of my favorite presidents, Ronald Reagan said. If we want to avoid war he said war begins when governments believe that the price of aggression is cheap. I think that's a situation we find ourselves in Syria now.

In fact in listening to some of my colleagues, it's been amazing to me that we seem to paralyze ourselves into inaction running through every potential scenario that can occur in this. It makes me wonder, God help us if we become a country that can't do the right thing because we paralyze ourselves into inaction. This is a picture of Syrian children many of which the secretary said earlier about 400 died in just this one chemical gas attack and if we don't do anything about this, you can ensure that maybe the kids in this picture or definitely other kids will die from the same attack. I want to very quickly read to you the effects of sarin gas and look at these children and understand that children have gone through this. Mild effects of sarin exposure is running nose, watery eyes, blurred vision, drooling and excessive sweating, chest tightness, rapid breathing, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, increased urination, confusion, weakness, headache, slow or fast heart rate, low or high blood pressure.

Exposure to large doses of sarin like we saw in Syria, loss of consciousness, convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure which is a polite way of saying you suffocate to death while you're aware that you're suffocating to death. What we're talking about is a discussion of what the international community and the United States of America and the goodness of our heart determined is the right thing and area that we can affect. Can we ban all artillery shells? We can't.

Can we ban all war? We can't. But if we can stand up and say that chemical weapons have no place in this world and we can do something about it God help us if we don't. I would remind folks and I will ask you all to comment on this eventually, from 1991 to 2002 or 2003, we maintained two no-fly zones over Iraq because of our disdain for chemical weapons. Most people would have agreed what we did over in Northern and Southern Iraq was the right thing to do because Saddam Hussein gassed his own residents.

This is not the first time America has put down a red line on chemical weapons. I heard people say it's the president's redline. It's not the red line of the United States of America. You have to look at history and know that it is. I'm reminded of what President Clinton said when he was asked about his one regret for his time in presidency. He said my one regret was inaction in Rwanda.

What if we do nothing about gassing of thousands of people in Syria? I have heard some people say that if we go in and we strike Assad and make him pay for the use of chemical weapons more than any benefit he gains, that we are acting as, quote, "al Qaeda's air force." I believe that is a cheap line by some people to garner headlines and not a serious discussion of what's going on in Syria.

Mr. Secretary Kerry, if you'll start. What's your thought on the comment of the cheap line of al Qaeda's air force in dealing with the opposition and in punishing an evil man for using evil weapons?

KERRY: Congressman, your comments have been very eloquent and I think very, very important to this discussion. I am confident I join the general and Secretary Hagel in thinking you for your service willing to serve in the guard as well as a pilot but also here. The intent of the president could not be more clear and the impact if we effect -- if Congress will pass this and we can carry out this action, the impact will be not to help al Qaeda.

In fact, it won't help al Qaeda. It will further expose al Qaeda, but it will hold a dictator accountable to this critical standard. You just reiterated it and I said it in my opening testimony, this is not just about folks in Syria, my friends. American troops benefit from this standard being upheld. And through all of our wars since 1925, we've managed to see it upheld against when we've been involved.

The fact is that the absence of our willingness to uphold this standard will do several things that are directly against our interests. Number one, completely undermine America's validity and America's word in the region and elsewhere. It will embolden North Korea and Iran with respect to activities that will directly threaten the United States and our allies.

It will importantly increase the number of terrorists that we are already concerned about because it will force people who want to take on Assad to go to the least common denominator of efficiency and expediency and that is to arm the worst people who will try to get the job done. I ask everyone to listen carefully to Congressman Kinzinger and evaluate this just on the fundamental basis of common sense and human behavior. In the absence of doing this, there will be a grant of impunity to Bashar Al Assad for the use of these weapons.

ROYCE: Alan Grayson from Florida.

REPRESENTATIVE ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: Thank you. General Dempsey, do Syria and Hezbollah have a means to launch a counterattack against the U.S. vessels in the Mediterranean, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and Israel?

DEMPSEY: Our maritime assets are positioned such that there are no capabilities that can threaten them. Embassies of course are a fixed resource and are always subject to terrorist attack. That remains true today as it has for the last ten years and we've taken steps to mitigate that risk.

GRAYSON: And Israel?

DEMPSEY: Israel, you may be aware is actually anticipating some action and gone to a state of high alert and called reserves up and taken a lot of measures and by the way, we partner with Israel very closely on the defense of Israel.

GRAYSON: Would you say that a counterattack is more likely than not?

DEMPSEY: No, I don't think I can say that. Without signalling the Syrian regime in some way, I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't come to that conclusion.

GRAYSON: Secretary Kerry, have members of the Syrian opposition called for such an attack and if so, whom?

KERRY: Not specifically that I know of, have they? They support it apparently, but they have not advocated to me. I've had conversations with president of the opposition and there was no pleading or urging to do this.

GRAYSON: In fact, haven't members of the Syrian opposition said they don't want an attack? Isn't that true?

KERRY: No, I have not heard that.

GRAYSON: You haven't seen public reports to that effect?


GRAYSON: All right, Secretary Kerry, there are 189 signers of the chemical weapons convention. Syria does not happen to be one of them. How many of those signatories have pledged to participate in the military intervention in Syria and what exactly has each one pledged to do?

KERRY: There are at least ten countries that have pledged to participate. We have not sought more for participation. We have sought people for support. There are many more obviously that support. I think I should let the general speak to the question. You know, I said earlier there really is a limit for this kind of an operation as to how many you want to participate. You want support, but just physically the management of it, the technical capacity and other issues are critical and General, perhaps you want to say something.

DEMPSEY: Congressman, I was writing down --

TAPPER: We're going to take a very quick break and we'll be right back with more of the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on possible U.S. military intervention in Syria. Back right after this.