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Key U.S. senators strongly criticize Obama's Syria policy

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit in Washington October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit in Washington October 31, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee strongly criticized the Obama administration on Thursday for lacking a plan to resolve the war in Syria.

"I just don't get a sense that we have a strategy," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the panel's chairman, during a contentious hearing on Syria policy.

Noting the war's human cost and recent gains by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, several senators made clear their disappointment at the administration's failure to carry through with promises of military aid for the rebels.

"I think our help to the opposition has been an embarrassment and I find it appalling you would sit here and act as if we're doing the things we said we'd do three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago," said Senator Bob Corker, the panel's top Republican.

The two-and-a-half-year war in Syria has killed more than 115,000 people and left millions homeless.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in September to back President Barack Obama's request for permission to use military force against Syria.

Obama asked Congress to authorize force after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack outside Damascus in August, but after running into stiff resistance in the House of Representatives he announced that the United States would work with Russia to do away with Syria's chemical weapons.

CHEMICAL WEAPONS INSPECTORS

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced on Thursday that Syria had destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities, meeting a major deadline in its disarmament program.

U.S. lawmakers said they welcomed the news, but had questions about the report, and about Russia's dual role of both working with Washington to eliminate chemical weapons and sending aid to Assad. Menendez said he would hold a classified hearing later to ask more about the weapons inspectors' work.

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, acknowledged that many Syrians were disappointed with the level of U.S. support.

"I have heard just anguish from people I have talked to over there ... and I have had to emphasize to them that our primary goal there is to provide a political solution," he said.

Nancy Lindborg, an administrator from the U.S. Agency for International Development, testified that Syria had lost 35 years of human development progress during the war.

Another official, Thomas Countryman, an assistant secretary of state, testified that Russia's military aid to Assad's government was now more significant than what Iran is sending to Syria.

Ford said he saw no military solution for Syria. "In a civil war, where communities think that it's existential, that if they surrender they will be murdered, we have to build a political set of agreements between communities," he said.

Republican Senator John McCain, among the strongest voices in Congress for backing the rebels, made clear he was not convinced by Obama's policy.

"You continue to call this a civil war... this isn't a civil war any more. This is a regional conflict," McCain said, noting that fighting had spread to Iraq, Jordan was struggling to handle Syrian refugees and Iran's involvement.

"For you to describe this as a 'civil war' ... is a gross distortion of the facts, which again, makes many of us question your fundamental strategy because you don't describe the realities on the ground," he said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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