WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday he supports arming rebels intervention in Syria, a move that will likely put more pressure on the Obama administration to act.
"In my view, looking at the situation as it exists, the time has come to consider providing military aid to the opposition," Menendez said during a hearing on the Syrian conflict on Thursday. "It should include weapons, but stop short of those weapons that could threaten our own interests if they fall into the wrong hands — like shoulder fired missiles."
Menendez pressed Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Jones on what a political solution to the conflict would look like, saying that the efforts so far had resulted in a "stalemate" and noting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a "monopoly on air power and he has a monopoly on artillery power."
The hearing, which only attracted about half of the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, featured testimony by Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Daniel Glaser, the assistance secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes the Treasury Department. It occasionally became cantankerous as senators grew frustrated with the witnesses.
Pressed on specifics of how the political solution would happen, the witnesses gave the same kind of vague generalities that have been offered with regard to Syria since almost the beginning of the conflict.
They stressed the need to keep chemical weapons from being used and to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria, while keeping vague about the infighting in the Syrian opposition and avoiding a clear definition of how a political solution to the problem would come about.
"I agree with you that the prospects in Syria are not good," Jones said in response to Menendez's question, "What is the political solution that you envision?"
One solution, Jones said, is "to support the Syrian opposition coalition as much as we can."
Asked if fighting would continue in Syria even after Bashar al-Assad's eventual fall, Ford answered carefully, "the groups that we are supporting are talking about a vision of a country and vision of a state that is inclusive and will treat citizens equally."
"There is absolutely an extremism problem in Syria," Ford acknowledged. "It is incumbent on the Syrian opposition coalition to isolate those extremists."
Ford said that he had recently met with Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian expatriate elected as interim prime minister of the Syrian opposition.
Few solutions were offered for the Syrian refugees.
"They would like to be able to go home," Ford said of Syrian refugees. "They're frustrated that there isn't a magic-key solution to unlock that door."
Ford didn't have a clear answer on whether the U.S. knows exactly where its assistance is going.
"We do not have, as you would put it, Senator, we do not have boots on the ground," Ford said in response to Senator Ben Cardin's question. "But we have a good sense of where the assistance is going."
Senator John McCain took the sharpest tone with the witnesses.
"I don't know what to say," McCain said. "I don't know what to say to you, Ambassador."
"Shouldn't we do something that will prevent this massive slaughter that's going on? And you think that non-lethal assistance will accelerate Bashar Assad's departure?" McCain said.
"Ambassador Ford, you and I have been talking to entirely different people," McCain said. "I've been to the refugee camps. They're angry and bitter at the United States of America for not helping them."