Plan To Arm Syrian Rebels Hits Roadblocks In Congress
It was just about a month ago that the Obama Administration announced that they intended to reverse long-standing policy and seek to arm the Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar Ashad, mostly in response to confirmation that the Assad regime had used small amounts of chemical weapons in battle. So far, though, those plans are being held up Congressional opposition:
The Obama administration’s month-old plan to arm opposition fighters in Syria has stalled as a result of congressional disagreements over whether and how to aid the rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
To the growing frustration of those who won a long and contentious internal administration debate over the issue of supplying arms, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees remain divided on the proposal to send light weapons and ammunition to the rebel forces. Although administration officials initially estimated that supplies would be distributed “within weeks,” delivery has not begun.
Briefings and personal calls to Capitol Hill this week from top-level officials, including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and CIA Director John O. Brennan, have failed to shake strongly held views, according to administration officials and committee members.
“Congress has been pushing for months, asking for more aggressive actions in Syria. So it’s puzzling that when there’s actually a proposal on the table to do more, Congress is the one making it difficult to do so,” said an official familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing lawmakers.
Some want a more significant U.S. commitment, saying that the administration’s proposal is too little, too late. Others have voiced concerns that despite the administration’s assurances, U.S. weapons will fall into the hands of Islamist extremists fighting alongside the rebels.
A significant number of lawmakers reject any increased U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war and fear a slippery slope into another Middle East quagmire.
“There are a great many of us who applauded the president’s caution about not being dragged into this conflict and continue to have great concerns,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Primary for me is the concern that if we become an arms supplier . . . we’ll be sucked into another sectarian civil war,” Schiff said. “Providing a small amount won’t be enough to change the trajectory on the battlefield, and we’ll be called upon to give more, and more sophisticated weapons. . . . I think the risk is too great that once we get in, it will be very difficult to get out.”
Outside the intelligence committees, senior congressional leaders have expressed outrage at the parameters of the program — too big or too small — and at not being briefed or asked to approve it.
“What they’re seeking . . . is to do this covertly, so that they never need to make a case to the American people and only a handful of people are involved,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think it’s terrible policy.”
Corker emphasized that he supports arming the rebels. But although he and Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) co-
sponsored a bill in May authorizing the administration to send weapons, Corker said, neither of them has been allowed into secret briefings on the plan.
“To act like this is covert, I’m sorry, is beyond ridiculous,” Corker said, noting that the administration itself publicly announced last month that it planned to provide direct, if unspecified, military support to the Syrian opposition.
“They’re being very clumsy about this,” he said, “and time’s a wastin’ ” to help the beleaguered rebels.
Ultimately, of course, Congress has the power of purse and could decide to fund or defund arms supplies for the rebels as they see fit, although the odds of the House and Senate getting to any agreement on that issue seems rather remote.