Russian Support for the Syrian Regime

Russian Support for the Syrian Regime

Hon.
Sam Brownback
United States
Senate
109th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Mr. President, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held a hearing last week that examined the close relationship between Russian Federation and Syria. The Commission heard testimony detailing their intricate financial and military dealings that began in the earliest days of the Cold War and continue to this day. This relationship allows Syria to continue to support numerous terrorist groups, groups that have terrorized Lebanon for the past three decades and fuel the insurgency in Iraq. In addition, we heard details about Syria's support of terrorist organizations who operate around the world. Finally, we heard from both Lebanese and Syrians committed to freedom and democracy who have become victims of the Assad regime and are now languishing in the prison cells of Damascus. 

The Commission's concern regarding Russia's involvement with Syria--a country that has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 by the State Department--rises from the Helsinki commitments that Russia has freely accepted as a participating State of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe OSCE. The OSCE Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism was agreed to at the Porto Ministerial in 2002. Russia then committed to refrain from instigating or providing active or passive support or assistance to, or otherwise sponsoring terrorist acts in another state. Russia also committed to reducing the risk of terrorists gaining access to weapons and materials of mass destruction and their means of delivery. 

Russia's support for the terrorist regime in Damascus flies in the face of these commitments. Russia is an active enabler of the Assad regime, whose Ba'ath Party was described by one of our witnesses as the richest terrorist organization in the region. The Syrian regime has received untold amounts of military hardware, much of which are currently being used by terrorists in Iraq against our American troops and our allies. Additionally, Syrian intelligence supports terrorist units in Iraq, composed not only of Syrians, but including Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans, and other Islamic mujahidin. 

Even more alarming is Russia's plan to sell an unknown number of Igla SA-18 shoulder-held missiles to Syria. Such a sale to this terrorist state is more than criminal. This sale will put in the hands of terrorists some of the most sophisticated shoulder-held missiles in the Russian inventory, and increases the likelihood that they will get into the arsenals of other terrorist organizations around the world. Despite Russia's denials, indicators are that this sale will go forward soon, putting at risk every airline flight, every military flight, with the potential for massive loss of life and the shutting down of modern transportation around the world. 

We must focus on the fact that, while there is no apparent direct Russian involvement in Iraq, this direct support of Syrian military and intelligence operations, coupled with Syria's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the long list of evil deeds coming out of Damascus, cast Russia as a suspicious party to these terrorist activities. We should not sit idly by and allow this to transpire without comment. We must call upon President Bush and Secretary Rice to reiterate U.S. demands that Russia disengage from its support of Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism. It is not enough to stop the sale of the missiles. Complete cessation of financial and military support to this rogue regime is necessary. 

On the eve of the Helsinki Commission hearing, a courageous group of human rights activists and pro-democracy reformists held a demonstration in Damascus, a daring display of dissent quickly broken up by the security forces. One of the protesters held up at banner that read: “Freedom for Prisoners of Opinion and Conscience.” According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee, the Assad regime in Damascus has executed nearly 17,000 Syrian and Lebanese prisoners. Additionally, there are over 600 prisoners of conscience in Syrian jails, champions of human rights, accountability and transparency who are still languishing under horrible conditions. 

I would like to highlight a few of these prisoners of conscience whose names were submitted to us by one of the witnesses and call for their immediate release: Riad Seif, member of parliament; Aref Dalilah, economist; Maamun al-Homsi, member of parliament; Abdul Aziz al-Khayer, physician; Habib Issa, lawyer; Walid al-Bounni, physician; Mohammad Bashir al-Arab, student leader and doctor; Muhanad al-Debs, student leader; Mahmoud Ammo, activist; Mahmoud Abou Sader, activist; Mazid Ali Al-Terkawi, businessman; and Fawaz Tello, engineer. 

I was pleased to hear of Syria's promise to a U.N. envoy to withdraw its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon, but as the counter-demonstrations yesterday against Syria demanded, Damascus must follow through with actions as soon as possible. I am hoping that details of the withdrawal plan from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen after his talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud will allow the people of Lebanon to hold their parliamentary elections in May without any interference from the Syrians and to do so in a manner that is free, timely, and transparent. 

What would be unacceptable is the kind of warning issued by Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami that polls may have to be postponed if the country's political opposition fails to enter a dialogue with the government. Such an effort will surely ignite the kind of violence that the Lebanese people have been yearning for so many years to avoid. 

It is time for the international community to lend support for the slogan that defines the people's revolution in Lebanon and in the region: “Kifaya,” which means "enough." Let's listen to what the people in Lebanon are saying for what they are saying is now being heard not only in Beirut but in Damascus, in Cairo, and in Riyadh: enough of autocrats, enough of the corruption, and enough of the repression. 

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    By Cade Stone, Max Kampelman Fellow The OSCE was founded on a commitment to cross-border cooperation in the face of indiscriminate regional threats, in pursuit of comprehensive security, and in mutual acknowledgement of the need for sovereignty and stability. Today, as the earth’s climate continues to change, global environmental issues are increasingly tangible security concerns. Climate change stands to magnify both the internal challenges faced by OSCE participating States and the external pressure of mass migration out of critically unstable regions—a redoubled “migrant crisis” in the mold of 2015. “Climate change is having far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity and food security,” warned UN Migration Director General William Lacy Swing on World Food Day 2017. “It is among the main reasons for the record numbers of people compelled to migrate from rural areas to towns and cities around the world.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that a large share of migrants come from rural areas where more than 75 percent of the world’s poor and food insecure depend on agriculture and natural resource-based livelihoods. As agricultural yields dwindle, water supplies shrink, and threatened regions become less habitable, poor populations will suffer most immediately and most critically. As atmospheric and oceanic temperatures rise, mounting evidence suggests that natural disasters will become increasingly catastrophic. Displacement rates in disaster-prone areas will increase, along with the costs of crippled infrastructure and lost productivity.   In 2015, according to the FAO, there were already 244 million international migrants, 40 percent more than in 2000. Nineteen million people were internally displaced because of natural disasters. An average of 26 million were displaced annually by climate or weather-related disasters between 2008 and 2015. In a changing global climate showing no signs of reversal, these trends stand only to worsen. It is at this intersection of climate change and migration that the OSCE region may be most immediately threatened. During the 2015 migrant crisis, millions of displaced people fled to Europe from the same regions that now face the greatest risk of further instability; migration flows may surge once more as environmental pressures mount. Stable governments and populations rely on access to vital resources and are thus deeply imperiled by the threat of widespread drought, crop failure, flooding, and other disruptions that climate disruption portends. By this measure, any of the “staging” areas for migrants in North Africa, as well as their origin nations throughout Africa and the Middle East, are already politically fragile. The OSCE has gradually begun to mobilize around the pressing security reality of a changing climate. In the wake of the latest UN Climate Report, Nilza de Sena, chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Economic and Environmental Committee, warned that the effects of climate change are close and potentially disastrous and urged bold action to “accelerate decarbonization and intensify the discussion on the expansion of renewable and sustainable energy and maximizing energy efficiency.” The OSCE also has joined the Environment and Security (ENVSEC) Initiative, a sweeping multi-agency program established to examine the security risks posed by climate change, particularly in Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia. Crucially, the effort treats climate change as a threat multiplier inherent to future national and international security agendas. Its “Climate Change and Security” report analyzed credible domestic security concerns for OSCE member nations, including competition for scarce resources, increased social tension and conflict, loss of trade, and infrastructural damage. The analysis has yet to account for the compounding effects the external pressures of increased migration will inflict, as the same climate shocks ripple across more fragile regional neighbors. Climate disruption and subsequent migration imperils the whole of the OSCE and calls for a defense of its most foundational commitments, from sovereign equality to territorial integrity to interstate cooperation. Action must be taken to prepare for the security crisis on Europe’s doorstep, both in domestic planning and investment abroad. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization calls for massive investment in rural development to bolster opportunity, resiliency, and stability. It has developed Sustainable Development Goals to address the structural drivers of migration and shepherd responsible growth in migrant source countries. Increased investment in infrastructure, ensuring reliable access to resources, and redoubled diplomatic conflict resolution will help stem the instability and conflict that displaces vulnerable populations. Further, the Center for Climate and Security promotes a Responsibility to Prepare framework for European leaders to elevate the institutional awareness and responsiveness to climate insecurity, both in migration hotspots and on Europe’s doorway. ENVSEC’s Climate Change and Security report proposes a portfolio of actionable items to better brace OSCE project nations, many of which can and should be implemented broadly across Europe, including raising public urgency, encouraging cross-sectoral policy integration, and incorporating increased cross-border cooperation on climate projections and vulnerability assessments. Finally, the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords need not preclude it from climate leadership within the OSCE. It remains uniquely poised to help foster the vital regional cooperation needed to meaningfully address these challenges. European security was shaken by the migration crisis of 2015. Political stability across the continent was undermined and fringe populist forces emboldened in its wake. Unless concerted, collective action is taken quickly, the coming waves of climate migration could make past surges look like ripples. The U.S. and OSCE have both a mandate and responsibility to lead.

  • Slovakia's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together 57 countries from North America, Europe and Central Asia. At the Helsinki Commission’s first hearing in the 116th Congress held on April 3, 2019, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, was invited to discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress. Minister Lajčák was received by Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), along with Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, Ranking House Member Rep. Joe Wilson, and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Gwen Moore, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. Chairman Hastings encouraged Minister Lajčák to meet with civil society during his country visits as Chair-in-Office, including in the United States.  Co-Chairman Wicker observed, “[a]t a time when civil society is under threat in so many countries, we look to you, as the Chair, to ensure that people’s voices are heard in the OSCE.” Minister Lajčák stated that “resolving conflicts and mitigating their impact on people” in countries suffering from “economic instability, political instability, [and] human rights violations” is a priority for Slovakia’s Chairmanship. He focused on Ukraine due to the severity of the country’s conflicts, while also acknowledging those in other areas of the OSCE region such as Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Co-Chairman Wicker emphasized the need for the OSCE to “strengthen the process of democratic reform, fight against corruption, and fight against regional instability.” The minister emphasized that his goal will be to focus on a list of nine concrete measures that would “bring about small, but concrete, results and improvement [in Ukraine] for the people on the ground,” such as humanitarian demining and repairing civilian infrastructure. He asserted that repairing Stanytsoa Lukanska, a bridge which serves as a key piece of transportation infrastructure in the Luhansk area, is the most important of these measures. The minister also emphasized the need to ensure a safer future, especially for young people, by countering cyberterrorism and its (mis)use in organized crime and human trafficking. He emphasized the importance of educating youth in matters related to cybersecurity, including emerging threats such as cyberterrorism. To that end, Slovakia’s chairmanship will use its convening authority “to call attention to new trends and explore potential collaborative impact.” Chairman Hastings optimistically remarked that “young people know a hell of a lot more about [cyber security and technology] than we do” and Commissioner Moore commended Mr. Lajčák for focusing on the youth – “it is a quintessential strategy for preventing chaos.” Finally, the Slovak Chair-in-Office focused on multilateralism, considered by Minister Lajčák as a “fundamental problem-solving and war-preventing” tool both in and outside of the OSCE. Furthermore, Minister Lajčák emphasized the importance of “working together on multilateral platforms [which] is inevitable if we want to safeguard peace and prosperity to our people,” calling the OSCE “the platform to do just that.” He affirmed this priority of co-operation between OSCE participating States in response to a concern raised by Commissioner Moore regarding certain participating State’s “violations [of all] the Helsinki principles” which would undermine multilateralism within the OSCE: “We have to […] look eye-to-eye and talk about issues […] that is what makes the OSCE unique.” Throughout the hearing, the Chair-in-Office stressed an intent to counter terrorism in his priorities. Part of the minister’s first conference to encourage youth education involved “promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and the best practices in combating modern-day anti-Semitism,” to stem terrorism. Furthermore, a second conference, held a week before the hearing, “focused on preventing and countering terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.” The minister asserted that “terrorism and violent extremism pose as grave a threat as ever” and that “we, at the OSCE, need to continue updating and adapting our toolbox” to be prepared for the future. Despite specific victories, such as the recent destruction of the remaining Daesh strongholds, the minister advised that “this is not a time to get comfortable,” and that “we need to address the root causes [of terrorism] and stay one step ahead.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office also addressed regional challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. However, Chairman Hastings is optimistic about the capability of the OSCE to advance the rule of law, human rights, and non-discrimination its participating States. Minister Lajčák expressed confidence that providing concrete measures to improve the daily lives of those living in conflict, educating youth, and encouraging multilateral engagement on their behalf will lead to positive developments throughout the OSCE region.

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

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