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GOP senators press on Obama’s Syria strategy

Administration officials grilled by Senate panel

Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, had tense exchanges with two of the committee’s harshest GOP critics, senators John McCain and Bob Corker.

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, had tense exchanges with two of the committee’s harshest GOP critics, senators John McCain and Bob Corker.

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials defended US efforts in Syria on Thursday against blistering criticism from Republicans who claim Washington has goals, but no strategy, to find a solution that would end the bloody conflict affecting nations throughout the Mideast.

Robert Ford, the ambassador to Syria, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States is proud of the humanitarian and other assistance it has provided to the Syrian opposition trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s government. He acknowledged the Syrian people were ‘‘deeply disappointed’’ when the United States did not take military action against the Syrian regime, but said the administration is working furiously to arrange a conference in Geneva next month to set up a transitional government and end the bloodshed.

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Ford had tense exchanges with two of the committee’s harshest GOP critics.

‘‘You continue to call this a civil war, Ambassador Ford,’’ said Senator John McCain of Arizona. ‘‘This isn’t a civil war anymore; this is a regional conflict. It’s spread to Iraq. We now have Al Qaeda resurgence in Iraq. It’s destabilizing Jordan. Iran is all in. Hezbollah has 5,000 troops there. For you to describe this as a quote, ‘civil war,’ of course, is a gross distortion of the facts, which again makes many of us question your fundamental strategy because you are — you don’t describe the realities on the ground.’’

Ford said he does not think that Assad can win militarily and only has the advantage in a few places like around Aleppo in northern Syria. He said Assad has a disadvantage on the battleground in other places, including some in the east and south.

McCain was not satisfied, saying Assad’s killing of civilians remained unchecked.

‘‘Come on. . . . The fact is that he was about to be toppled a year ago, or over a year ago. Then Hezbollah came in. Then the Russians stepped up their effort. Then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard intervened in what you call a, quote, ‘civil war,’ and he turned the tide. And he continues to maintain his position of power and slaughtering innocent Syrian civilians. And you are relying on a Geneva conference, right?’’

The prospects for an international peace conference in Geneva to end the war are unclear.

Assad told the Arab League-UN envoy Wednesday that foreign support for the armed opposition must end if any political solution to the country’s conflict is to succeed.

The United States, Russia, and the United Nations have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and the opposition together in Geneva to try to negotiate a political resolution to the conflict. After repeated delays, efforts renewed last month to organize the conference, but the Syrian opposition remains deeply divided over whether to attend, while the government refuses to sit down with the armed opposition.

Meanwhile, fighting continued to rage in Syria. And the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights increased its estimate of the death toll of the war now in its third year. It said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of conflict, up from the previous estimate of 100,000. The new estimate said more than 61,000 of the dead were civilians.

‘‘The problem itself is tragic . . . and we want to help them,’’ Ford said in one exchange with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee. ‘‘But ultimately, Senator, Syrians must fix this problem, and ultimately, Senator, it’s going to require them to sit down at a table. The sooner they start, the better. But in the meantime, we will keep helping the opposition, Senator.’’

Corker, who has long been critical of the slow pace of aid to Syria, said he thinks the US assistance to Syrian opposition has been an ‘‘embarrassment.’’

‘‘I find it appalling that you would sit here and act as if we’re doing the things we said we would do three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago,’’ said Corker. ‘‘The London 11 [a group of countries that support the opposition] has to look at us as one of the most feckless nations they’ve ever dealt with.’’

Senator Edward Markey, A Massachusetts Democrat, cautioned that the United States should approach the situation in Syria ‘‘with a lot of humility, given what we’ve learned after we intervened in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan; after what we’ve seen go on in Egypt.’’

‘‘We should just have a little humility in the United States in terms of our ability to control events on the ground in these countries,’’ he said.

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