Senate Democrats on Tuesday questioned the Trump administration’s failure to appoint ambassadors to numerous countries in the Middle East amid concern over escalating violence in Syria.
“In terms of diplomacy … isn’t the lack of ambassadors in the area, the lack of sufficient diplomatic capacity in this State Department, an obstacle to really effectively using diplomacy?” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel during a hearing.
The question came as Votel, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, addressed concerns over the ongoing conflict in Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have killed nearly 1,200 people in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta since Feb. 18.
The three countries say they are targeting “terrorist” groups attacking the capital city of Damascus.
Votel said the best way to hold the Russians accountable for their actions in the region is through political and diplomatic channels, but said that so far “it does not appear” that the country is responding to such efforts.
In response to Blumenthal’s question, the general said he can’t comment on the State Department’s decisions in appointing ambassadors. However, he added that the U.S. military is working with country teams in the Middle East region in what he called “extraordinarily good” relationships.
When pressed by Blumenthal, however, Votel conceded that of the 18 country teams in the region — Syria and Iran do not have such a team — only 12 of the countries have ambassadors.
“Doesn’t that reflect an absence of leadership in the Department of State?” Blumenthal asked.
“I think that’s probably a more appropriate for them than for me, senator,” Votel responded, referring to State Department officials.
Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Raymond ReedFBI chief: Trump hasn’t specifically directed me to stop Russian meddling in midterms Live coverage: FBI director testifies to Senate Intelligence Committee Senate Dems demand answers on cost of Trump’s military parade proposal MORE (D-R.I.), the panel’s ranking member, early on in the hearing made clear his frustration with “the administration’s marginalization of our diplomatic corps.”
“It is notable that across the [U.S. Central Command] and [Africa Command] areas of responsibility, a number of ambassadorial posts remain vacant — most notably in Jordan and Somalia where I recently visited, but also in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and Egypt,” Reed said in his opening statement.
“This is not a question of a congressional inaction. No nominations have been forthcoming, and I’m sure all of our colleagues would rapidly move to consider nominees for these very important positions,” he said.
This is the second time in a week that the lack of appointed ambassadors by the Trump administration has come up in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On Thursday, U.S. European Command head Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the committee he was concerned about the ambassador vacancy in Turkey, which remains even as the U.S. relationship with Ankara has grown strained over the presence of Kurdish forces in Syria.
“For Turkey, today, where we don’t have an ambassador now and we are in very sensitive discussions in order to continue to reinforce and strengthen, you know, our relationship with a key NATO ally. … The ambassador’s position is key,” Scaparrotti said.
He added that while the country teams “have great staffs and we work very closely with them,” an ambassador is more important as they are “a key individual appointed by the government, recognized by their government as the ambassador.”
The United States and Turkey have had a tense relationship over the past several months over Washington’s support for a Syrian Kurdish fighting force called the YPG, used in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey says the YPG are linked to a terrorist group within its borders.
Tensions between the two countries reached a new high in January when the Turkish military moved against Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, raising concern about a possible confrontation between U.S. and Turkish forces.
“Military power alone will not be enough to address the national security challenges we face in these complicated regions in any enduring way and we must have the people in place to help ensure our long-term strategic objectives are met,” Reed said Tuesday.