WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration officials defended U.S. efforts in Syria Thursday against blistering criticism from Republicans who claim Washington has goals, but no strategy to find a solution that would end the bloody conflict affecting nations throughout the Mideast.
Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria, testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States is proud of the humanitarian and other assistance it has provided to the Syrian opposition trying to topple President Bashar Assad's government. He acknowledged that the Syrian people were "deeply disappointed" when the U.S. did not take military action against the Syrian regime, but said the administration is working furiously to arrange a conference in Geneva next month to set up a transitional government and end the bloodshed.
Ford had tense exchanges with two of the committee's harshest GOP critics.
"You continue to call this a civil war, Ambassador Ford," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. "This isn't a civil war anymore; this is a regional conflict. It's spread to Iraq. We now have al-Qaida resurgence in Iraq. It's destabilizing Jordan. Iran is all in. Hezbollah has 5,000 troops there. For you to describe this as a quote, 'civil war,' of course, is a gross distortion of the facts, which again makes many of us question your fundamental strategy because you are — you don't describe the realities on the ground."
Ford said he does not think that Assad can win militarily and only has the advantage in a few places like around Aleppo in northern Syria. He said Assad has a disadvantage on the battleground in other places, including some in the east and south.
McCain was not satisfied, saying Assad's killing of civilians remained unchecked.
"Come on. ... The fact is that he was about to be toppled a year ago, or over a year ago. Then Hezbollah came in. Then the Russians stepped up their effort. Then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard intervened in what you call a, quote, 'civil war,' and he turned the tide. And he continues to maintain his position of power and slaughtering innocent Syrian civilians. And you are relying on a Geneva conference, right?"
The prospects for an international peace conference in Geneva to end the war are unclear.
Assad told the Arab League-U.N. envoy Wednesday that foreign support for the armed opposition must end if any political solution to the country's conflict is to succeed.
The United States, Russia and the United Nations have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and the opposition together in Geneva to attempt to negotiate a political resolution to the conflict. After repeated delays, efforts renewed in earnest last month to organize the conference, but the Syrian opposition remains deeply divided over whether to attend, while the government refuses to sit down with the armed opposition.
Meanwhile, fighting continued to rage in Syria. And the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights increased its estimate of the death toll of the war now in its third year. It said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of conflict, up from the previous estimate of 100,000. The new estimate said more than 61,000 of the dead were civilians.
"The problem itself is tragic ... and we want to help them," Ford said in one exchange with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee. "But ultimately, Senator, Syrians must fix this problem, and ultimately, Senator, it's going to require them to sit down at a table. The sooner they start, the better. But in the meantime, we will keep helping the opposition, Senator."
Corker, who has long been critical of the slow pace of aid to Syria, said he thinks the U.S. assistance to Syrian opposition has been an "embarrassment."
"I find it appalling that you would sit here and act as if we're doing the things we said we would do three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago," said Corker. "The London 11 (group of countries that support the opposition) has to look at us as one of the most feckless nations they've ever dealt with."
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., cautioned that the U.S. should approach the situation in Syria "with a lot of humility, given what we've learned after we intervened in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan; after what we've seen go on in Egypt."
"We should just have a little humility in the United States in terms of our ability to control events on the ground in these countries," he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the Foreign Relations panel's chairman, said in prepared remarks that progress toward destroying Syria's chemical weapons was "the only positive note" in the worsening crisis.
He referred to the announcement earlier Thursday by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that Syria had completed the destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that international inspectors have worked with unprecedented speed, but that the job must be finished so that every banned weapon is removed and destroyed. "This is meaningful progress, which many believed would be impossible," he said in a statement. "The progress must continue."
Kerry also said that eliminating Syria's chemical weapons is not a substitute for ending the conflict, and he said humanitarian workers need greater access to ease human suffering. "If weapons inspectors can carry out their critical mission, then I refuse to believe we can't find a way for aid workers to carry out their equally critical mission delivering food and medical treatment to Syrians in need," he said.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.