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Syrian opposition rallies behind Menendez bill to arm rebels

Syrian opposition rallies behind Menendez bill to arm rebels

Syrian rebels have found a friend in New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced a bill Monday to provide weapons to certain rebel groups — and though it falls short of many rebel requests, the Syrian opposition’s de facto lobbying arm in Washington sees it as the best ticket in town to turn the tide against Bashar al-Assad‘s regime.

"We are quite happy with most aspects of the legislation," Dan Layman, spokesman for the Syrian Support Group (SSG), told The Cable. The SSG is the only organization licensed by the U.S. government to provide financial and non-lethal support to rebel fighters, and has unusually extensive contacts with military commanders in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

After 24 hours of pouring over the Menendez bill’s language, Layman gave The Cable the group’s first assessment: in short, not bad.

"It is a more focused step in the right direction, and due to its less aggressive nature…. I think it has more of a chance of going through," Layman said.

The bill includes $250 million to the opposition for "basic services over parts of the country," additional sanctions on arms and oil sales to the government in Damascus, and the authority to provide "arms, military training and non-lethal supplies" to vetted elements of Syria’s armed opposition — a measure the Obama administration has yet to take for fear of putting arms in the hands of Islamic extremists. (In recent months, the CIA has attempted to vet Syrian rebels receiving support from Western and Arab governments.) 

What it does not do is provide rebels man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), call for the immediate establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, or offer specifics on military training and chemical weapons securement.

"Training and non-lethal supplies are a must, and we would like to see more specific descriptions of the training that is being proposed," Layman said. "At the very least, the bill’s intention to exclude MANPADS should be substantiated by an intention to provide other forms of anti-aircraft artillery, which the rebels have been using somewhat successfully against both MiGs and helicopters so far." As for the bill’s call for increased sanctions, Layman said Congress should be more focused on direct aid to the rebels. "We need to put our weight behind those particular efforts first." 

The SSG’s critique is not at all surprising to Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a critic of the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria.

"They want immediate relief, and after 70,000 killed, I can’t blame them," he told The Cable. "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it’s a pretty good bill," said Tabler, noting the indirect effect that legislative support for the rebels can have from members of the president’s own party. "The last time the Hill moved on Syria was sanctions on Syrian oil in the summer of 2011. That pressured the president to move, and this could too."

According to an increasing number of senators, it’s just a matter of time before the administration gives in. "My guess is we will give them to them," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said on Meet the Press over the weekend, referring to weapons to rebels. "I do think we’ll be arming the opposition shortly," Republican Senator Bob Corker told CBS News, a day after a golf outing with the president.

For now, the administration is emphasizing the action it has already taken in Syria and downplaying pressure from the president’s own party.

"We are not going to comment on proposed legislation," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Cable. "As the President has said, we continue to explore every available, practical, and responsible means to end the suffering of the Syrian people and accelerate a political transition."

Though Hayden refused to draw out the potential hazards of Menendez’s bill, the plain concern is the growing intelligence indicating that the country’s rebel movement is increasingly being taken over by jihadist groups, with the powerful Al-Nusra Front’s recent alliance with al Qaeda being a primary example. There are also concerns that even if Washington gives the rebels more guns and rocket launchers, they won’t be able to topple Assad‘s regime.

Menendez has yet to announce a date for voting on the bill.