MURPHY CONDEMNS ABSENCE OF DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS IN SYRIA & YEMEN AMID HUMANITARIAN DISASTER

WASHINGTON – Following his recent trip to the Middle East, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Wednesday condemned the Trump administration during a U.S. Foreign Relations Committee on the humanitarian impact of the eight years of war in Syria for abdicating U.S. leadership in the region. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of State issued a statement urging Russia to end military escalations on humanitarian targets in Idlib, after it was reported that an airstrike killed 10 civilians, including two children. Murphy questioned what tools the United States had at its disposal to do something other than issue a statement. During the hearing, Murphy questioned David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, on how the United States got pushed out of the diplomatic process of restructuring Syria and what steps we can take to make ourselves relevant again in the region. 

“The two words that populate talk about the U.S. role in the region today seem to me to be confusion and irrelevance. Confusion is obvious, given the back and forth nature of this administration’s policy on what kind of presence we will have there. But irrelevance is also an apt description given the fact that … we have essentially been pushed out of the diplomatic process,” Murphy said. “How did the United States get pushed out of this diplomatic process and is it too late to get ourselves back in? It doesn’t seem like we have many tools at our disposal other than complaint if the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks have committed to convene a process that will never, ever include the United States again, despite the equities that we have. Why have thousands of troops in Syria if somebody else is plotting the future of the country without us?”

Murphy later asked Miliband if he agreed with the assessment Murphy received while overseas that 250,000 Yemeni citizens who are starving are likely beyond help, and that there are over 10 million people at risk of falling into that category; he further asked whether the coalition government is purposely allowing wide-spread starvation to occur in Yemen. Miliband agreed with that assessment. The U.S. Senate may soon vote on a resolution to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution offered by Murphy, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to withdraw U.S. hostilities in the Saudi-led war in Yemen pursuant to the War Powers Act. The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives passed the resolution with broad bipartisan support. This was the first time in U.S. history that the U.S. Congressed passed a resolution pursuant to the War Powers Act. 

“The Saudis have made all sorts of deliberate decisions not to do things that are perfectly within their control to prop it up… When you lay down a map of where these quarter of a million are that are literally weeks and months away from death by famine, they are distributed between Houthi territory and the territory controlled by the coalition, a coalition of which the United States is part. And so this isn’t just about the Houthis stopping aid from getting in. This is also about a decision by the coalition to allow for a campaign of starvation to exist in places that it controls,” Murphy said.

Complete transcript of Murphy’s exchange with Mr. Miliband is below:

MURPHY: Thank you very much Mr. Chairman. Thank you both of you for being here today. This has been very good. Mr. Miliband, yesterday the State Department issued a statement expressing alarm over the escalation of violence in Idlib in northern Hama. And they cited specifically, or there have been reports citing, more Russian and regime attacks on civilians, infrastructure and humanitarian targets. And I guess my question to you surrounds what the tools are at our disposal to do something about this other than just raise alarm? The two words that populate talk about the U.S. role in the region today seem to me to be confusion and irrelevance. Confusion is obvious, given the back and forth nature of this administration’s policy on what kind of presence we will have there. But irrelevance is also an apt description given the fact that as Senator Menendez mentioned, we have essentially been pushed out of the diplomatic process. Russia, Iran and Turkey met again in Kazakhstan on April 25th and once again the United States wasn’t there. There is vague talk about conversations we continue to have with Turkey about how to settle their claims to the region in a way that does not spur more violence. But my question to you is how did the United States get pushed out of this diplomatic process and is it too late to get ourselves back in? Because it doesn’t seem like we have many tools at our disposal other than complaint if the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks have committed to convene a process that will never, ever include the United States again despite the equities that we have. Why have thousands of troops in Syria if somebody else is plotting the future of the country without us? 

MILIBAND: Well thanks for a very difficult question. I think that I would say, first of all, in some parts of the country you have more equities than others, notably in the northeast, and you don’t want to give away those equities cheaply. Secondly, the Russians and their friends know that they can’t rebuild Syria alone. They are going to need the rest of the world to rebuild Syria and that gives you leverage. Thirdly, this country is blessed to have wide-ranging relationships with every other country in the world and the question is where Syria fits on your docket for the issues that you want to raise with the Russians. And if it’s not in the top three or the top five, then it will get consequently less of a role. And you know as well, better than I do, the story of what happened after 2015, the Russians entered the Syrian conflict in September 2015. But until the U.S. shows it matters to them, then obviously you’re not going to be playing the kind of central role that could be a force for stability in Syria and the wider region. 

MURPHY: I don’t disagree that the United States will have to play a major role in reconstruction. That’s hard to see as this administration continues to draw down the funds available for it. But why on earth we’ve decided to sit out the conversations about an ultimate political settlement when everyone acknowledges that we will have to play some, at the very least a monetary role, is beyond me. Mr. Miliband, I wanted to also take advantage of the fact that you are before this committee as we are about to vote on an effort to override a presidential veto regarding an effort, a bipartisan effort, here in Congress to pull the United States out of the disastrous civil war in Yemen. I just came back from the region where I received maybe the most disturbing briefing I have ever received on Yemen in which our humanitarian agencies there told me that there are 250,000 Yemenis today that are starving and are likely beyond saving, are beyond help, and there are another 10 million that are at risk of falling into that category. The state of the economy is in shambles. The Saudis have made all sorts of deliberate decisions not to do things that are perfectly within their control to prop it up. And what was maybe most interesting to me was when you lay down a map of where these quarter of a million are that are literally weeks and months away from death by famine, they are distributed between Houthi territory and the territory controlled by the coalition, a coalition of which the United States is part. And so this isn’t just about the Houthis stopping aid from getting in. This is also about a decision by the coalition to allow for a campaign of starvation to exist in places that it controls. Do you share this bleak assessment of the situation on the ground in Yemen? 

MILIBAND: Yes, I do. We have about 800 International Rescue Committee staff on the ground in Yemen. I was in Yemen myself in September. The malnutrition that you speak to is profound and there are two critical variables that need to be affected. One is that the war strategy of the coalition has failed. 18,000 bombing raids have far from ending the war, they have fueled the war. And they have radicalized the population and left Iran stronger, not weaker. And so it seems to me the leadership role that you’ve been playing has been outstanding and has been bipartisan, has been very, very welcome. Secondly, you are absolutely right that the Houthis have also got responsibilities, and we take our humanitarian opportunities to talk to all sides and to press them, both directly and indirectly, about their responsibilities in respect to the Stockholm Process, which the UN convened in January and which has not been followed through. And I think it’s that twin track that is absolutely essential.

MURPHY: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  

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