Floor Statements

Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today delivered the following remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate regarding mass atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime against the people of Syria:

“Mr. President, I rise today to appeal to the conscience of my colleagues and my fellow citizens about the mass atrocities that the Assad regime is perpetrating in Syria. When the images and horrors of this conflict occasionally show up on our television screens, the impulse of many Americans is to change the channel. But we must not look away. We must not avert our eyes from the suffering of the Syrian people, for if we do, we ignore, we sacrifice that which is most precious in ourselves – our ability to empathize with the suffering of others, to share it, to acknowledge through our own sense of revulsion that what is happening in Syria today is a stain on our the collective conscience of moral peoples everywhere.

“I appeal to my colleagues today not to look away from the images I will show you. And I want to warn all who are watching: These are graphic and disturbing pictures. But they are the real face of war and human suffering in Syria today – a war that our nation has the power to help end, but which we are failing to do.

“These images are drawn from a cache of more than 55,000 photographs that were taken between March 2011 and August 2013 by a Syrian military policeman, whose job it was to document the horrors that the Assad regime committed against political prisoners in its jails. This individual eventually defected to the opposition along with his photographs, which were meticulously reviewed and verified by three renowned international war crimes prosecutors and a team of independent forensic experts. They compiled their findings in a report late last month that provides direct evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the systematic abuse, torture, starvation, and killing of approximately 11,000 detainees in what amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity. These are just a few of those pictures, and far from the most disturbing.

“I urge every member of Congress and the American public to read the full report, which can be found on the websites of CNN and The Guardian. Although only a handful of these gruesome images have been released publicly, the authors have provided their own startling commentary on what they reveal:

“David Crane, the first chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the man responsible for indicting former Liberian President Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity, stated that many of the photographs show groupings of bodies in ways that, quote, ‘looked like a slaughterhouse.’ Crane characterized the Syrian government as a ‘callous, industrial machine grinding its citizens’ that is guilty of ‘industrial-age mass killing.’

“Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice, lead prosecutor in the case against former Yugoslav President Milosevic at the Hague, reported that the systematic way the bodies were catalogued, and the effort given to obscure the true causes of death leads one to ‘reasonably infer that this is a pattern of behavior’ for Assad’s forces.

“But perhaps most chilling of all, Sir Desmond de Silva, who also served as a chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, stated that the emaciated bodies revealed in these pictures are ‘reminiscent of the pictures of those who were found still alive in the Nazi death camps after World War II.’

“Yesterday, in a hearing of the Committee on Armed Services, I asked the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, whether these photographs, which clearly depict ghastly crimes against humanity, are authentic. Director Clapper said he has, quote, ‘no reason to doubt’ their authenticity. The United Nations is now doing its own assessment of these images, and all of us should fully support that. It is important to have the broadest possible validation of these images, and I am confident the U.N. team will validate them. After all, does anyone seriously believe the Assad regime does not have the means, motive, and opportunity to murder 11,000 people in its prisons?

“Indeed, this kind of inhuman cruelty is a pattern of behavior with the Syrian government. According to a detailed U.N. report issued at the end of January, Assad’s forces have systematically, as part of their doctrine, used children as human shields and threatened to kill the children of opposition members if they did not surrender. The U.N. also detailed the arrest, detention, torture, and sexual abuse of thousands of children by government forces. I will spare you the remaining details, as they are unspeakable, but again I urge you to read the entire report which can be found on the United Nations’ website.

“I also recommend that my colleagues read of the war crimes that Human Rights Watch has been documenting. They have reported, for example, on how Syrian authorities have deliberately used explosives and bulldozers to demolish thousands of residential buildings, and in some cases entire neighborhoods, for no military reason whatsoever, just as a form of collective punishment of Syrian civilians.

“Human Rights Watch researchers have also documented the toll of the Syrian government’s airstrike campaign against Aleppo and Damascus, and in particular, the regime’s use over the past few months of what has become known as ‘barrel bombs.’ For my colleagues who are not aware of them, barrel bombs are oil drums or other large containers packed with explosives, fuel, shrapnel, glass, and all manner of crude lethal material. Their sole purpose is to maim, kill, and terrorize as many people as possible when they are indiscriminately dropped from Syrian government aircraft on schools, and bakeries, and mosques, and other civilian areas. In one stark video of a barrel bomb’s aftermath, a man stands in front of a child’s body and cries out, ‘Oh God, we’ve had enough. Please help us.’

“These are just some of the many reasons why our Director of National Intelligence referred to the Syria crisis yesterday as ‘an apocalyptic disaster.’ And with more than 130,000 people dead, after more than one-third of the Syrian population has been driven from their homes, no truer words were ever spoken. But this ‘apocalyptic disaster’ in Syria is no longer just a humanitarian tragedy for one country; it is a regional conflict and an emerging national security threat to us.

“The regime’s war crimes are being aided and abetted by thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian agents on the ground, as well as Russian weaponry that continues to flow into the Assad government, even as Russia works with us to remove the Assad regime’s chemical weapons – a truly Orwellian situation.

“The conflict in Syria is devastating its neighbors. Lebanon is suffering from increased bombings and cross-border attacks by both the Syrian government and opposition fighters in response to Hezbollah’s role in the fighting. Unofficial estimates suggest that half of Lebanon’s population will soon be Syrian refugees. Similar estimates suggest that Syrian refugees now represent 15 percent of the population in Jordan, which is straining to manage the social instability this entails. Turkey has been destabilized. And perhaps most worrisome of all, the conflict in Syria is largely to blame for the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has grown into the larger and more lethal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now possesses a safe haven that spans large portions of both countries. Nowhere is this more threatening, or more heartbreaking, than in Fallujah – the Iraqi city where hundreds of U.S. troops were killed and wounded fighting to rid of terrorists and extremists, but where the black flags of Al-Qaeda now hang above the city.

“The sanctuary that Al-Qaeda now enjoys thanks to the crisis in Syria increasingly poses a direct threat to U.S. national security, and that of our closest allies and partners. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Mr. Jeh Johnson, has said, quote: ‘Syria is now a matter of homeland security.’ The Director of National Intelligence has referred to the Al-Qaeda sanctuary in Syria and Iraq as ‘a new FATA’ – the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda planned the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Indeed, Director Clapper has warned that Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Syria now aspire to attack the homeland. If the September 11 attacks should have taught us anything, it is that global terrorists who occupy ungoverned spaces and seek to plot and plan attacks against us can pose a direct threat to our national security. That was Afghanistan on September 10, 2001. And that is what top officials in this administration are now warning us that Syria is becoming today.

“The conflict in Syria is a threat to our national interests, but it is more than that. It is, and should be, an affront to our conscience. Images like these should not just be a source of heartbreak and sympathy. They should be a call to action.

“It was not too long ago, just a few months after the revolution in Syria began, that President Obama issued his Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities. In it he stated: ‘Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.’ He went on to say: ‘Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods.’

“Last year, speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the President said, ‘Too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.’

“And just last September, in his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama said this, and I would like to quote him at length: ‘[T]he principle of sovereignty,’ he said, ‘is at the center of our international order. But sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye. While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, while we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda, or Srebrenica? If that’s the world that people want to live in, they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.’

“That was our President, and I agree with every word of what he said. But how are we to reconcile these stirring words with the reality of these images from Syria? How are we to explain how the leader of the free world, who says that it is a moral obligation of the United States to do what we can to prevent the worst atrocities in our world, is not doing more to stop the atrocities that are occurring every single day in Syria?

“Where is that President Obama today? Where is the President Obama who has spoken so movingly of the moral responsibilities that great power confers? Where is President Obama who has said he refuses to accept that brutal tyrants can slaughter their people with impunity while the most powerful nation in the history of the world looks on and stands by? Where is the recognition that ‘the cold logic of mass graves’ is right there – right there in front of us, in Syria today?

“And yet our government is doing what we have sadly done too often in the past. We are averting our eyes. We try to comfort our guilty consciences by telling ourselves that we are not doing nothing, but it is a claim made in bad faith, for everyone concedes that nothing we are doing is equal to the horrors we face. We are telling ourselves that we are too tired or weary to get more involved – that Syria is not our problem, and that helping to resolve it is not our responsibility.

“We are telling ourselves that we have no good options, as if there are ever good options when it comes to foreign policy in the real world. We are telling ourselves that we might have been able to do something at one point, but that it is too late now – as if such words from the leaders of the world’s only global power will be any comfort to the Syrian mother who will lose her child tomorrow. We are telling ourselves what Neville Chamberlain once told himself about a different problem from hell in an earlier time – that it is ‘a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.’ Where is our outrage? Where is our shame?

“It is true that our options to help end the conflict in Syria were never good, and they certainly are worse and fewer now. But no one should believe that we are without options, even now. And no one should believe that doing something meaningful to help in Syria requires us to rerun the war in Iraq. That is an excuse for inaction. This is not a question of options or capabilities. It is a question of will.

“These images of the human disaster in Syria haunt me. And they should haunt all of my colleagues and all Americans. But what haunts me even more than the horror unfolding before our eyes in Syria is the thought that we will continue to do nothing meaningful about it, and how that deadens our national conscience, and how it calls into question the moral sources of our great power and the foundations our global leadership – and how, many years from now, an American president will stand before the world and the people of Syria, as previous presidents have done after previous inaction in the face of mass atrocities in faraway lands, and that president will say what all of us know to be true right now: that we could have done more to stop the suffering of others, we could have used the power we possess, limited though it may be, we could have exercised the options at our disposal, imperfect though they may be, and we could have done something, and it is to our everlasting embarrassment that we did not. And that future president will apologize for our current failure.

“Shame on us if we let history repeat itself that way.”

WARNING: Graphic, disturbing pictures of suffering in Syria Senator McCain showed on Senate floor below. 

 

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