- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2013

Scrutiny of the Obama administration’s Syria policy mounted on Capitol Hill Thursday, with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs announcing that it will convene a hearing next week to examine Washington’s response to the 2-year-old civil war in the Middle East nation.

“Unfortunately, we are watching conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate precipitously,” said Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican and the committee’s chairman. “It’s time for the Obama administration, which has struggled on Syria, to present and defend its policy on all fronts, including its humanitarian efforts.”

An estimated 70,000 Syrians have been killed in fighting since military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad began cracking down on pro-democracy activists and opposition groups in March 2011.

The Obama administration has for months been locked in an internal debate over how deeply the U.S. should involve itself in the conflict. Specifically, Mr. Obama’s top advisers have been divided over whether to embrace a policy of directly arming the opposition rebels in Syria.

A similar debate has been playing out in Europe, where Britain and France have recently begun pushing for the European Union to lift its embargo on the movement of weapons to Syria’s rebels. France this week threatened to begin shipping arms to the rebels unilaterally if the EU refuses to rescind the embargo.

Despite calls for such a policy that have also been made by some Republicans in Washington — and private support for it from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other former administration officials — the White House has so far resisted arming the rebels, citing the presence of Islamist extremist groups within the Syrian opposition forces.

Last month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry introduced a minor shift in the administration’s posture, however, when he announced that Washington would begin channeling “food and medical supplies” to the Syrian rebels.

The new assistance was added to what the State Department has described as an overall package of “vigorous diplomatic support” for opposition political groups tied to the Syrian rebels along with funds sent to help nearly a million refugees spawned by the nation’s civil war. A fact sheet circulated by the State Department in early-March said the U.S. has so far included “nearly $385 million in humanitarian assistance to help those affected by the conflict, and approximately $115 million in non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition.”

Robert S. Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria until being recalled by the State Department amid security concerns in October of 2011, will be among those to testify at the foreign affairs committee hearing on March 20.

Mr. Royce’s office said others to testify include Anne C. Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, Nancy E. Linborg, the assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“The committee will focus on how the U.S. can best protect its vital national interests and effectively promote a stable and peaceful Syria,” Mr. Royce said.

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