At Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Portman Presses Biden Administration Official on Efforts to Keep Humanitarian Corridor Open in Syria, Food Insecurity Concerns by Russian Blockage of Ukrainian Ports

June 8, 2022 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) pressed Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, on the work her and other U.S. officials are doing to keep humanitarian aid flowing into Syria. The Assad regime, and its Russian allies, continue to use food as a weapon of war against the Syrian people by blocking much-needed food and aid from entering the country. Currently there is only one humanitarian aid corridor left open – Bab al-Hawa – which the United Nations will need to reauthorize next month. Many fear that reauthorization will be blocked by Russia. Both Senator Portman and Assistant Secretary Leaf also addressed similar actions undertaken by President Putin to block grain and other commodities from leaving Ukrainian ports, specifically Odessa, which is causing a global food crisis in Syria and other places around the world.

Senator Portman also asked Assistant Secretary Leaf about her work with the government of Turkey in an effort to keep them from attacking the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey believes are a threat. Leaf stated that U.S. officials have had many conservations on this subject and have made it clear that any military operations undertaken by Turkey in Syria is ill-advised as it will put in harm’s way not only civilians but allies in the region.

A transcript of Senator Portman’s questioning can be found below and the video can be found here.

Senator Portman: “Thank you Chairman, appreciate it. Secretary Leaf, thanks for your testimony today. For what it’s worth, my sense is that other countries in the region are looking to us to figure out what is our plan in the long-term with Assad, and until we have a clear picture and give them a better sense of what we intend to have happen, I think it’s difficult for us to get them to help us in terms of isolating him and certainly not developing a normal relationship with him. Our U.S. policy on Assad – does he deserve any official role in the post-civil war Syria? Those are questions I think have to be answered, but that’s not my question today because you’ve talked about that issue, unless you are interested in answering that. I want to focus instead on two issues. One is food and using food as a weapon. We’ve seen President Putin do this in Ukraine, he’s doing this as we talk. We’ve also seen Assad and his supporters in Russia do that.

“The Russian diplomats at the United Nations Security Council have consistently abused their veto power, as you know, to gradually close down these aid corridors going into Syria and aid groups from around the world who have been trying to feed some of the literally starving people in Syria are frustrated by it. Russia is making their work much harder. I guess they believe by taking away this ability for NGOs to help on the food front that it forces people to rely on Assad and somehow his legitimacy would be enhanced by that. One, I’d like to know whether you think that’s true? But my question to you is, there’s a resolution coming up next month to hopefully reauthorize the one remaining border crossing for aid that is still being used so the one corridor left—will Russia veto that resolution? And what are you doing and what is Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield doing to engage other countries to ensure that this resolution passes and that these food corridors, this one last food corridor, can continue? So your comments on all of that would be appreciated.”

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf: “Thank you Senator. To your question, food as a weapon and is the theory of the case that by making people, Syrians, more food insecure and more dependent on Assad – I think frankly the answer is a bit simpler. It’s just cruelty for cruelty’s sake. It’s brutality, it’s punitive. It’s because they can do it. Now all of that said, and that was the sorry record of over a decade of the conflict. As your question about 2585, we are already well underway in terms of a very methodical and aggressive effort to have that expanded, to have Bab al-Hawa renewed as a cross-border access point into northwestern Syria and we will look for further access points. It is more critical this year than even last year when it was quite urgent that that be maintained, food insecurity is all the greater because of Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine and what it has done to lock up Ukrainian wheat stores and other commodities in the ports, Odessa and other ports, so it is more critical than ever. The humanitarian community is fixated on it, the donor community is fixated on it, and frankly I think there is a very wide consensus already that that cross-border point must be renewed.”

Senator Portman: “Well you’ve anticipated my second question which was about Ukraine and whether indeed that the Black Sea blockage that the Russians are insisting on, the blockage particularly of Odessa, are having an impact in Syria, as they are having an impact on global food insecurity. And you’ve said it does have an impact and in fact, those grains from Ukraine, including the wheat that is part of these humanitarian aid packages, is necessary to export because it is keeping people alive. So I thank you for that. On the SDF issue, this is a constant frustration with Turkey, as you know. The Turks believe that somehow the SDF is a significant threat to them and once again my understanding is they are threatening to go on the offensive against some of our allies in the SDF. The SDF signaled in some cases, as I understand it, they might be willing to partner with the illegitimate Assad regime out of desperation, to be able to repel these attacks. One, do you agree with that assessment and two, have you engaged with your Turkish counterparts to urge them not to attack our allies in Syria? If so, what has been their response?”

Assistant Secretary Leaf: “Thank you Senator. The Turkish government is very well aware of our views. We have had a series of high level engagements with them. I have not yet, I’m about a week or so into my job, but I am looking for an early opportunity to engage the government on this, but any venture, any military operation across the border into northern Syria first and foremost puts the civilian population in the crosshairs. Secondly, severely puts at risk a critical mission that the global D-ISIS coalition that the U.S. is undertaking and obviously it puts into the crosshairs our own partners in that mission, so we are completely unstinting in our efforts with the Turkish government to back them off on this ill-considered venture.”