February 27, 2014

Kaine Decries Assad Regime’s Use Of “Forced Starvation And Forced Sieges” As Weapon Against Syrian People

On Senate floor, Kaine condemns complicity of Assad regime’s “patron,” Russia

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a speech on the Senate floor today, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine addressed the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria. Kaine, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, recently traveled to the region and reflected on the widening dimensions of the civil war, its spillover effects in neighboring countries like Lebanon, and the complicity of Russia in the Assad regime’s war crimes.  He also shined a spotlight on Assad’s tactic of dropping barrel bombs on civilian populations which Secretary of State John Kerry has accurately called barbaric.   

“More than nine million Syrians need humanitarian aid,” Kaine said. “But they've not been able to receive basic humanitarian aid -- food and medicine -- due to the actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime and also due to the complicity of the regime's patron, Russia. The denial of humanitarian aid is a war crime, pure and simple. Thousands are dying of starvation. Cases of tuberculosis, polio, typhoid and other diseases are expanding at an exponential rate. And none of this is an accident. The Assad regime is using forced starvation and forced sieges as a weapon to destroy the Syrian people.” 

Kaine highlighted this photo released by the United Nations yesterday that shows a Damascus suburb that has been under siege by the Assad regime without access to food and basic medical care.

“Witness this photo. Look at the destruction. Look at the rubble. Look at the throng of hungry people stretching into the distance. See the hunger in their faces and bodies, and look at the questions in their eyes. It is incumbent upon the Syrian regime to allow unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians. Opposition groups have that same obligation.”

“When the Russian government and their people see this picture, it should remind them of their own history,” Kaine continued. “During the siege of Leningrad during World War II, the Nazis used these same tactics, forced starvation and siege, as a tactic of war to cause horrible deprivation to the Russian population of that city. Russians should look in the eyes of these victims of intentional starvation and grapple with their responsibility to them. Russia can cause the Assad regime, just as it did in August, to open access so that these people can have food and medicine. Russia has finally agreed to words on paper at the U.N., but the world will watch the actions of this nation.”

Full transcript of Sen. Kaine’s remarks:

Mr. President, I rise this morning to speak about the widening dimensions of the slaughter in Syria, a country of 23 million people, a proud country, is being transformed before our into a land of rubble, skeletons, refugees and ghosts. Three million refugees have fled into neighboring countries, that number will likely exceed 4 million by year in. Nearly 7 million Syrians are refugees within their own country, driven from their homes by the atrocities of the Assad regime. More than 130,000 innocent people have lost their lives during the three year civil war.

We’re witnessing one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II, and it can be stopped. It can be stopped. Last summer, my Armed Services colleague Senator Angus King of Maine and I visited Turkey and Jordan to explore the dimension of the refugee crisis in both of those nations. We visited refugee camps; we talked to government leaders and NGOs about the damage and the stressed communities that result from the unprecedented displacement of Syrians.

Last week the Senator from Maine and I visited Lebanon to see the scale of the Syrian crisis in that country. In a country of slightly more than 4 million people, there are already over 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled into Lebanon in the last three years. 1 in 4. Think of the scale of that refugee crisis if we were to receive in the United States war refugees of that scale, it would be 75-80 million people, nearly one in four.

In Lebanon last week we met with government leaders, NGOs and the UN High Commissioner on refugees, and what we learned was staggering. The Lebanese people have been unbelievably resilient and welcoming, almost beyond the point of belief. The water and health infrastructure of that nation are strained to the breaking point. The Lebanese economy, already fragile, is teetering. Schools in Lebanon now operate on double shifts with Lebanese children in the morning and refugees in the afternoon, accommodating tens of thousands of refugee children with more coming every day.

And the decision by the Lebanese terrorist militia Hezbollah to go all in to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad has led to a wave of extremist bombings against Hezbollah sites and leaders within Lebanon in which many, many civilians are casualties. Senator King and I witnessed a bombing in downtown Beirut while we were there. Many in our group heard the explosion, saw the smoke rise. We felt certain that our meetings would be canceled that day but one of the most grim aspects of our trip [was that] a bombing that killed five people and injured nearly 100 caused no one to change their daily routine. That is what life is in Lebanon largely because of the Syrian civil war.

The crisis extends beyond Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Refugees are going into Iraq by the thousands, 30,000 a day on one day in August exacerbating the deterioration of that country's stability and drawing it deeper into sectarian conflict. This photo is of the Iraq border with Syria and you'll see refugees stretching into the distance and the hills beyond. This is what is happening with all of the neighboring countries to Syria.

Mr. President as you know, the United States is the largest provider of assistance to the refugees who have fled Syria. We have provided $1.3 billion in aid thus far, $340 million in Lebanon alone. But getting relief into Syria is the next challenge. Because, Mr. President, the conditions in Syria are even worse than the conditions I described in Lebanon. Nearly seven million Syrians are displaced within their own country. More than nine million Syrians need humanitarian aid. But they've not been able to receive basic humanitarian aid -- food and medicine -- due to the actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime and also due to the complicity of the regime's patron, Russia. The denial of humanitarian aid is a war crime, pure and simple. Thousands are dying of starvation. Cases of tuberculosis, polio, typhoid and other diseases are expanding at an exponential rate. And none of this is an accident. The Assad regime is using forced starvation and forced sieges as a weapon to destroy the Syrian people.

Last month I met here in the Senate with Syrians who had survived the chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Assad regime in August of 2013. They described in gruesome detail what they and their families, many young children, endured in August. But the most shocking moment of the interview, Mr. President, came when a 22-year-old survivor who had fled Syria through Lebanon said if she had to pick, she would rather die a death by chemical weapons than be hit by a barrel bomb or starve to death, because death by chemical weapons would be quicker. In recent weeks nothing has epitomized the brutality of the regime more than the use of these barrel bombs. The bombs are crude weapons. They are simple oil drums that are filled with shrapnel and explosives. Helicopters often deliver the weapons and helicopters often hover over neighborhoods for minutes to just scare everyone, who knows what's coming. The barrel bombs drop, they explode, [they] level neighborhoods.

This is an example of a neighborhood in Aleppo. At one point hundreds were killed when barrel bombs were dropped on Aleppo earlier this month. You see the size and scope of the devastation, and you see families and their children fleeing the area in the aftermath of a barrel bomb. And this is going on every day in Syria. Secretary Kerry has rightly called these barrel bomb attacks unacceptable and barbaric. The primary architect of these crimes is Bashar al-Assad, but he has a patron who funds and supports what he does and who has the ability to stop the atrocities. Russia is Assad's principal supporter. Since the start of the Syrian war, Russia has shown it is complicit in these war crimes but it is also capable of stopping them. In the United Nations Russia has used its veto power and threat of veto on the Security Council numerous times to block international action to help the Syrian people. Three of these vetoes were used, Mr. President, to block basic humanitarian aid. What possible reason could any civilized nation have to denying war victims food and medical supplies?

But Russia has shown that it can be persuaded or shamed into taking action to try to promote basic safety of Syrian citizens. In August, with the threat of U.S. military action to punish the Assad regime for use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, Russia realized that it could no longer be the sole global apologist for this atrocity. And so it persuaded Syria to admit to the crime, acknowledge the existence of a stockpile and commit to the complete destruction of these inhumane weapons. While that process has been slow, the weaponry has not been used since Russia realized that the world would not tolerate such a clear violation of international law.

Similarly, after repeatedly blocking U.N. Action to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria, Russia decided in the midst of the Sochi Olympics that it could no longer stand in the way of basic humanitarian aid. The eyes of the world were on it, and it knew it could no longer be seen as the sole obstacle blocking people from receiving food and medicine. So it finally agreed to U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the provision of humanitarian aid inside Syria. When the eyes of the world were on it in the middle of the Olympics last week, it finally joined in with the rest of the world in calling on Syria to allow aid to its people. In the aftermath of that resolution, the real test lies ahead because those were words on paper and now we must see whether the aid will be delivered because this is the situation in Syria today.

This is a recent photo from a suburb of Damascus that has been under siege by the Assad regime without access to food and basic medical care. Witness this photo. Look at the destruction. Look at the rubble. Look at the throng of hungry people stretching into the distance. See the hunger in their faces and bodies, and look at the questions in their eyes. It is incumbent upon the Syrian regime to allow unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians. Opposition groups have that same obligation.

Mr. President, in conclusion, let me say a final word about Russian responsibility to respond to these poor Syrian people. When the Russian government and their people see this picture, it should remind them of their own history. During the siege of Leningrad during World War II, the Nazis used these same tactics, forced starvation and siege, to cause horrible deprivation to the Russian population of that city. Russians should look in the eyes of these victims of intentional starvation and grapple with their responsibility to them. Russia can cause the Assad regime, just as it did in August, to open access so that these people can have food and medicine. Russia can finally agree -- Russia has finally agreed to words on paper at the U.N., but the world will watch the actions of this nation.

Mr. President, one final thought: when Senator King and I were traveling last week in the Middle East, we went to other countries as well. And in one country, we engaged in a back-and-forth over the provision of U.S. military assistance and democracy reforms that this nation needs to undertake if we're to be better and better partners. A leader of that nation said to me, if the United States won't provide assistance, then we'll find a way to make Russia our partner. Well, to anyone thinking that making Russia your partner is a good thing, you ought to look at this photo, too, because this is what has come of Syria choosing Russia as its principal partner. Is this the kind of partner you want? We must keep the spotlight on these atrocities. We must keep the spotlight on Assad's responsibility. We must keep the spotlight on Russia's complicity to bring an end to these atrocities and to work with other nations to find a resolution to the Syrian civil war.

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor. 

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