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Senators: What's the strategy in Syria?

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PAULINE JELINEK | October 31, 2013 12:47 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration officials defended U.S. work in Syria Thursday against blistering criticism from Republicans who claim Washington has goals, but no strategy to find a political resolution that would end the bloody conflict affecting nations throughout the Mideast.

Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria, testifying to 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 that the Syrian people were "deeply disappointed" when the U.S. did not take military action against the Syrian regime, but said U.S. officials are working furiously to arrange a conference in Geneva next month to set up a transitional government and end the bloodshed.

"You continue to call this a civil war, Ambassador Ford," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. "This isn't a civil war anymore; this is a regional conflict. It's spread to Iraq. We now have al-Qaida 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?"

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, said he thinks the U.S. assistance to the 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 (group of countries that support the opposition) has to look at us as one of the most feckless nations they've ever dealt with."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the Foreign Relations panel's chairman, said in prepared remarks that progress toward destroying Syria's chemical weapons was "the only positive note" in the worsening crisis.

But Menendez lamented the worsening humanitarian crisis caused by the war, now in its third year, and said that a lack of progress on a negotiated political settlement portends continued bloodshed and suffering.

He and other lawmakers told Ford that they don't believe the Obama administration has a strategy for dealing with the conflict.

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Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.