Senators hurled a flood of insults at senior State Department officials on Wednesday, insisting that the international push to remove chemical weapons from Syria has benefited, not punished, strongman Bashar al-Assad at the expense of tens of thousands of Syrians who have died since the deal was negotiated last year.
The combative hearing, which saw lawmakers dismiss answers to questions about U.S. strategy in Syria as "baloney" and "delusional," was explosive from start to finish. The theatrics began after the Obama administration dodged the first question from Sen. Robert Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The New Jersey Democrat wanted to know whether the U.S. is considering any military actions to help ensure that Assad's government does not quash the opposition.
Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, demurred on outlining possible military options in a public setting.
Cue the fireworks.
"Are you sitting here, trying to indicate to the media and the people listening that you guys have actually developed a military strategy relative to Syria, and that you will talk about it in a classified setting?" Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee, asked. "Because if you are, that would be major news.… [And it's the most] major, misleading baloney I've heard since I've been in the U.S. Senate."
Patterson retorted that she would not "be, in effect, bullied into answering" in an open setting, so Corker answered for her.
"Let me just assure to the world: The U.S. has no military options on the table," he said. "What is our strategy in Syria? I don't see we have one, other than letting people kill each other off, and letting it fester.... To act like you have some sort of classified information is misleading."
Patterson insisted that the U.S. does have a policy to bolster the security of surrounding countries such as Jordan, send humanitarian assistance to rebels, and support a diplomatic solution to the conflict while trying to "change the calculus on the battlefield."
"I agree that many elements of our policy have not been successful," Patterson added, "but I think we are trying to revise our policy now."
Sen. John McCain appeared astounded. "This conflict's been going on for three years. 150,000 people are dead," the Arizona Republican said. "And we are only now revising our policy."
Corker had some dark words for U.S. inaction, calling the effort to remove and destroy Assad's chemical stockpiles a "shiny object" to distract the U.S. from the bloody conflict. "The best thing that ever happened to Assad—this sounds really crass—was kill 1,200 citizens with chemical weapons," Corker said, "because [the U.S.], Russia, and others have now propped him up and used that killing to allow 40,000 more people to be killed."
Tom Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, said the deal forced Assad to give up the chemical weapons he wanted as a strategic deterrent against Israel and constrained him from using them against his own people. "These are actual losses for him."
Corker fired back: "I think you're delusional."
"If I could expand on my delusions," Countryman said, the international agreement has not validated or fundamentally strengthened Assad enough to change the military calculus on the ground.
Menendez punted some of these fiery questions to a classified setting. He wants to know all the military options being considered and to obtain a complete list of overt and covert actions the U.S. is taking to help the vetted Syrian rebels. The chairman also wanted to know what the U.S. plans to do with any chemical weapons Assad has not yet disclosed—and what tangible consequences Syria will face if it does not destroy its declared stockpiles by June 30.
"That's what we want to know," Menendez said. "I don't want to go to a classified hearing with what I read in The New York Times."