Peace with Israel and the protection of religious minorities must be conditions of U.S. support for a Syrian government following the fall of President Bashar Assad, said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand after speaking with exiled opposition leaders in Turkey.
The Democrat, who serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees and is a leading pro-Israel voice in the Senate, was part of a bipartisan delegation last week to Jordan, Israel and Turkey.
A key focus of the five-day mission was to assess the impact of Syria’s civil war and the resulting refugee crisis on the region.
In a phone interview on Monday, Gillibrand said that while she did not specifically discuss future relations with Israel in meetings with the rebels, “I had the sense that regional stability was very important [to them] and that would mean an agreement with Israel.”
She added, “We’ve seen very difficult transitions both with Egypt and Libya. So part of our concern with Syria is, how can we have a more stable new government that respects minorities, and we’re very worried about Alawites and Christians being slaughtered under a new post-Assad government.
“So, respect of other religious groups and positive relations with Israel — all these issues will be fundamentally important in working with the opposition forces in how the U.S. can assist them in moving forward.”
The other participants were Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Hoeven of North Dakota and Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mo Cowan of Massachusetts.
A key concern of the delegation was the eventual fate of Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons post-regime. They pressed the rebels for guarantees that a new government would work with international forces to secure and destroy those weapons to keep them out of the hands of terrorists who might use them against Israel or Americans.
Gillibrand said the U.S. “needs to do much more” to protect civilians in Syria and aid the rebels, but containing the chemical weapons will be a key barometer of the relationship. “It’s not only important for U.S. security but for U.S. support for the opposition,” she said.
In Jordan, they met with King Abdullah II and visited a refugee camp that houses 100,000 displaced Syrians. Another 300,000 are believed to be dispersed throughout Jordan.
“This is causing very significant pressure on [Jordan’s] economy and also reducing wages, creating instability,” Gillibrand told The Jewish Week. “We’re gravely concerned about this crisis and feel that we must do something to support the refugees and the countries hosting refugees, as well as help the Syrian opposition be more effective.”
She noted that the U.S. has provided Jordan with $200 million in humanitarian funds to cope with the refugee problem.
In Jerusalem, the delegation met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for two hours – “unprecedented in terms of scope,” the senator said – and discussed the refugee problem as well as the growing threat of a nuclear Iran.
“The prime minister has had very fruitful meetings with President Obama and seems to be very satisfied,” Gillibrand said. “Obviously President Obama made it very clear that containment is not an option and he is going to do everything he can to prevent Iran from militarizing its nuclear capability.”
She said Netanyahu seemed less concerned about the security of Israel’s northern border with Syria than with the regional instability caused by the flow of refugees from the embattled country.
The senators visited U.S.-made Iron Dome defensive missile batteries in Israel as well as Patriot missiles deployed in southern Turkey as a safeguard against bombardments from Syria.
“The relationship between the U.S. and Turkey is strong, which I think is very important and needs to be strengthened as does the relationship [between Turkey and] Israel as well,” said Gillibrand.
Recently soured ties between Jerusalem and Ankara show signs of improvement since Obama brokered a phone call between Netanyahu and his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to apologize for the death of nine Turkish citizens in 2011 when Israeli commandos boarded a ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza.