News / Middle East

    Top US Envoy: Onslaught on Aleppo Causing ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’

    Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by Syrian government forces in the rebel-held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 4, 2016.
    Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by Syrian government forces in the rebel-held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 4, 2016.
    Cindy Saine

    The onslaught on Syria’s Aleppo is creating an “unacceptable” flood of refugees and is causing a “humanitarian catastrophe,” the top State Department official coordinating the global effort against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, Brett McGurk, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.

    McGurk just returned from a trip to Kobani and other areas in northern Syria and was on Capitol Hill to give the congressional panel a first-hand account of the situation there.

    Several lawmakers expressed concerns about the attempt by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, to surround the city of Aleppo.

    Ranking Democratic committee member Eliot Engel asked McGurk if the Obama administration is considering a push for a no-fly zone to protect innocent Syrian civilians from slaughter.

    McGurk reiterated the Obama administration's position that there is “no viable option” at this time” for a no-fly zone.

    McGurk told lawmakers that establishing a humanitarian corridor for aid and reaching a cease-fire in Syria will be at the top of the agenda at coalition talks this week in Munich, Germany.

    McGurk said there has to be a political process that will lead to a transition in Damascus, and that IS cannot be defeated as long as Assad is still in power because his brutality fuels terrorism.

    FILE - President Barack Obama's envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, is seen speaking to reporters during a news conference.
    FILE - President Barack Obama's envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, is seen speaking to reporters during a news conference.

    U.S. reluctance?

    Representative Engel said some U.S. allies in the Middle East have told him that they have the sense the U.S. is reluctant to get deeply involved in Syria, and that this is why Russia moved in.

    Republican Committee Chairman Ed Royce had even harsher criticism of President Barack Obama’s policy.

    “When it comes to Syria, tragically, the U.S. response has been downright shameful. The slaughter goes on. Train and equip [recruitment of moderate Syrian rebels] failed," he said. "In December, the U.S. joined Russia to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution that required humanitarian aid and the end of civilian bombing as part of its plan for 'peace talks.' But rather than stand firm and put pressure on Russia to abide by this resolution, Secretary [of State John] Kerry pushed the opposition to the negotiating table, even as the Russian and Assad regime bombing intensified. The result: predictable failure.”

    Special envoy McGurk defended the administration’s strategy, saying the global coalition has conducted 10,000 air strikes on IS targets and is “suffocating” the terrorist network in every possible way, including by hitting their ability to move oil and to store cash.

    He said IS is losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and many of its fighters are getting killed in the fight. He said that is why some are heading to Libya.

    FILE - Libya Dawn fighters fire an artillery cannon at Islamic State militants near Sirte, March 19, 2015.
    FILE - Libya Dawn fighters fire an artillery cannon at Islamic State militants near Sirte, March 19, 2015.

    IS in Libya

    Democratic committee member Brian Higgins said the presence of IS fighters in Libya is particularly disturbing because there is a lot of instability for the group to exploit in Africa.

    McGurk said IS tries to recruit young fighters with the false notion of an expanding and prosperous caliphate, when actually their territory is shrinking and conditions are nothing like what they depict.

    He said some IS recruits want to go to die a miserable death, and he said the global coalition is “happy to oblige them."

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