As U.S. lawmakers vote on arming Syrian rebels, big questions remain

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 17, 2014 4:06 PM

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives votes on Wednesday on legislation to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, but questions remain over whether it will give them the advanced weapons they say they need to defeat Islamic State militants.

The vote is a test of support within President Barack Obama's own party for his stepped-up campaign to "degrade and destroy" Islamic State fighters who have seized a third of both Iraq and Syria, declared war on the West and seek to establish a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

The spending-bill amendment is widely expected to pass, backed by both Democrats and Republicans later on Wednesday. It is also expected to pass the Senate later this week.

Facing resistance by war-weary lawmakers in Obama's Democratic party, the administration has reached across the aisle to Republicans for crucial support, a rare bipartisan moment in an otherwise polarized Congress.

Ohio Representative John Boehner, the Republican House speaker, and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, both say they will back the authorization, which lasts only until Dec. 11, the day the spending bill also expires.

The amendment does not provide details about the training plan, prompting lawmakers to fear that a "yes" vote could mean authorizing shipments of military equipment that might end up in the wrong hands and possibly even kill Americans.

"I'm not confident we know who our allies are," West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, said in a Senate speech on Wednesday to explain why he opposed the training effort.

The amendment does not include $500 million the White House says it needs to arm and train the rebels. It is intended to quickly provide the authority Obama wants while avoiding a debate on the money.

A significant part of Obama’s plan hinges on congressional approval of the plan to train and equip Free Syrian Army rebels to "strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the extremists," as Obama put it in a speech on Sept. 11 and to prevent U.S. troops from "being dragged into another ground war."

Fears that U.S. troops could be dragged into the conflict were fanned on Tuesday by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, who raised the possibility that American troops might need to take on a larger role in Iraq's ground war.

'NONE OF THIS IS PERFECT'

If passed, the bill would allow the Pentagon to later submit requests to shift funds within the budget if it decides it needs funds to pay for the program.

Defense officials have said they expect to recruit and train about 5,000 of the moderate rebel fighters, many of whom have been waging a three-year-old civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. military officials say there is support within the Pentagon for supplying the rebels with weapons beyond small arms and ammunition, including battlefield artillery, anti-tank rockets and mortars.

That creates a quandary for the United States.

The administration has resisted providing powerful weapons requested by the rebels such as surface-to-air missiles for fear they could be captured or used against the United States or its allies. Should that happen, lawmakers fear being portrayed as authorizing a bill that ultimately helped to kill Americans.

But should the bill provide the rebels with just small arms and ammunition, as originally envisioned earlier this year, lawmakers could be open to accusations they supported legislation that made no difference on the battlefield and was well short of what the rebels needed.

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the House Defense appropriations subcommittee, said the program could start with small arms and then possibly graduate to heavier weapons, such as "armored personnel carriers, artillery, real air defense capability" but declined to say whether such plans had been discussed in classified briefings.

"None of this is perfect," said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "This is all hard, and this is a bad choice among even worse choices. All of those people who are criticizing this choice, I have yet to hear their better idea."

(Additional reporting by David Lawder and Krista Hughes; Editing by Jason Szep and Howard Goller)