September 13, 2011

The Situation in Syria

As Delivered on the Senate Floor

Mr. President, the world has witnessed considerable upheaval across the Middle East this year as citizens from all walks of life have turned out by the millions to say enough to repressive regimes, stagnant political systems, and a lack of economic opportunities.

 

In fact, we should probably look back to the summer of 2009 when thousands upon thousands of ordinary Iranians bravely took to the streets to peacefully protest the country’s likely stolen election.

 

These Iranian citizens were met with brutal violence, death, detention, and unspeakable torture.

 

While Iran’s ruling dictatorship was able to temporarily repress the public aspirations of its own people, the seeds for wider public discontent were taking root through much of the region.

 

First, in Tunisia we saw peaceful protests lead to the ousting of corrupt, long-time strongman President Ben Ali.

 

Next, Egyptian President Mubarak resigned following sustained peaceful protests in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt.

 

And certainly Muammar Qaddafi’s reign of erratic and despotic rule is nearing an end.

 

Other popular calls for political and economic reform from Bahrain to Yemen remain in flux.

 

And as we saw this weekend with the violent and very troubling protests breaching the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, ousting a repressive regime is only one step on a long road toward building effective long-term democratic and economic institutions.

 

The United States stands ready to support these peaceful transitions, but most of the hard work must continue to come from within--from the people who made such historic change possible in the first place.

 

Amid so much upheaval and potential hope, it is critically important that we also keep our attention on what is happening in another very important country in the Middle East--Syria.

 

Since March, millions of protesters have peacefully taken to the streets of towns and villages across Syria demanding an end to the brutal dictatorship of the Assad family.

 

The Syrian people have suffered 40 years of economic hardship, political repression, and corruption under the Assad family--first under former President Hafez al-Assad and now under his son, Bashar al-Assad.

 

Let me give an example of life under the Assad regimes.

 

Almost 30 years ago, then-President Hafez al-Assad ruthlessly leveled a portion of the town of Hama to put down a rebellion by his own people.

 

Between 10,000 and 20,000 fellow Syrians were literally buried to death in the ruble.

 

This is how political dissent was dealt with in Syria.

 

And what has been his son's strategy for addressing public demands for change while reform is sweeping the rest of the region?

 

Tragically, the same as his father--mass murder.

 

Since the popular uprising began, an estimated 2,000 people have already been slaughtered by Assad’s security services.

 

Government snipers on rooftops have fired on those who dare to go outside in areas where protesters are active.  Men have been rounded up and detained in nighttime house-to-house raids.  Tanks and anti-aircraft guns have been used against civilians and civilian buildings.

 

A recent example--sadly one that is not at all unique--obviously shows that the current Assad regime has no sense of history.

 

Last month government troops backed by tanks, armored vehicles, and snipers entered the heart of Hama--the same town of Hama that had been flattened by Assad’s father three decades earlier--to quash antigovernment protesters.

 

Our dedicated U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford had gone to Hama not long before the siege to serve as witness to the unfolding events.

 

I wish to show this photo, which shows a giant Syrian flag held by the crowd during a protest against President Assad in the city of Hama on July 29.

 

The town--already under siege for days--saw its telephone, water, and electricity cut off at 5 a.m. as a prelude to the deployment.

 

Residents tried to stop the advancing armored columns with barricades--many of them built of furniture, iron railing, rocks, and cinderblocks--but stood little chance.

 

Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded.

 

Such public resilience and government brutality have continued unabated in Syria for months.

 

President Assad’s tyrannical actions have been condemned around the world.  The Arab League, not always known for its democratic advocacy, has urged Syria to “end the spilling of blood and follow the way of reason before it is too late.”

 

Syria’s neighbor and significant trading partner Turkey has spoken out.  Turkish President Gul said he has “lost confidence” in the Syrian government.  Prime Minister Erdogan has said, “Turkey can no longer defend Syria.”

 

British Prime Minister Cameron, French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel jointly issued a statement urging Assad to “face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”

 

The United Nations human rights office in Geneva has issued a sweeping report concluding that the Syrian government might have committed crimes against humanity through summary executions, torture, and by harming children.

 

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have sharply criticized the Syrian government’s crackdown from the start, and most recently the Administration announced additional sanctions against the regime, including those squeezing Assad’s cash lifeline from petroleum exports.  The European Union also cut its purchase of Syrian petroleum.

 

Senators Gillibrand and Lieberman have introduced legislation--legislation I am pleased to support--that further tightens sanctions against Syria’s petroleum exports by penalizing those who buy Syrian oil or invest in its energy sector--an approach Congress has supported in the past against Iran.

 

I urge others to support this legislation and for the Congress to pass it expeditiously.

 

And when the crackdown in Syria began, I joined Senators Lieberman, McCain, Cardin, Kyl and at least 20 others on a Senate resolution condemning the violence. I understand that Senator Paul has had a hold on that resolution for a number of months. I call on Senator Paul to work with us on his concerns in a timely manner so we can move forward putting the Senate on record about these tragic events in Syria.

 

There is more still the international community can do.

 

Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa are still blocking a United Nations Security Council resolution that could impose more sweeping international sanctions on Syria.  That some of these countries have emerged from decades under their own repressive regimes, only to sit silently as Assad slaughters his own people is extremely troubling.

 

Russia and China should also pledge not to purchase any surplus Syrian oil which is used by Assad to pay off his enablers and security henchmen.

 

Human rights monitors, humanitarian workers, and journalists must be allowed in the country.

 

And the International Criminal Court should look into indicting President Assad on war crimes.

 

This administration has shown great skill and diplomacy in navigating the turbulent calls for change in the Middle East.

 

These are demands from everyday people for a better life, for a chance to freely choose one's government, and to see hope and dignity for one's children.

 

The people of Syria should know that the rest of the world is watching and supporting their aspirations for freedom.

 

Saturday night in a suburb of Chicago I had a meeting with about 30 Syrian Americans, and we spoke at great length about the situation in the country of their birth.  Many of them still have relatives, family, and friends, in Syria, and they are following on YouTube and through the international media the events of the day.  They showed me on one of the computers nearby some of the YouTube footage which showed the Syrian security forces literally shooting a man dead, point blank. You could see him lying in the street, and you could see the blood flowing from his body.

 

To suggest that these peaceful protesters are anything else is to misstate the obvious.  These people, by and large, in the streets of Syria are asking for the same thing that was asked for across the Middle East.  They are asking for a chance for reform, for change, for self rule.

 

I promised my friends and people I represent in Illinois who have such strong feelings about Syria that I would do my best when I returned to Washington this week.  This floor statement is just the beginning.

 

A few moments ago, I got off the telephone, having had a phone conversation with Ambassador Ford, who is in Damascus.  He has done an exceptional job for our country.  He has risked his life to let those who are protesting peacefully know that the United States is in their corner. We talked about the situation on the ground.  He is a man of great talent and experience in the Middle East, and he analyzed all the different forces at work.

 

We know that Iran is, in fact, the major supporter and promoter of Assad and his repressive regime.  We know, as well, that these five countries in the United Nations--Russia, India, China, Brazil, and South Africa--are stopping the United Nations action when it comes to Syria.  I find it hard to imagine how some of these countries, in light of their own history, could ignore the obvious: the killing of innocent people in the streets of Syria.  It cannot be tolerated, should not be condoned, and should not be protected by their veto in the United Nations.

 

I am going to work with President Obama and this administration and my friends in Congress on both sides of the aisle to let the people of Syria know that what is happening there has not been ignored by the U.S. Congress.  I hope Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will at least lift his hold on bipartisan legislation which we have pending here which will express that sentiment in the strongest of terms.

 

The people of Syria deserve that message, to know that the people of the United States, through their elected representatives in the Senate, understand their plight, stand behind them, and will work to bring justice to their country.

 

Mr. President, I yield the floor. 

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