Senators introduce bipartisan bill to arm Syrian rebels

Senators introduce bipartisan bill to arm Syrian rebels

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) introduced a bill Wednesday to arm the Syrian rebels, the latest piece of legislation aimed at pressuring the Obama administration to intervene more aggressively in the protracted civil war. The bill provides lethal weapons to vetted members of the Syrian opposition and beefs up sanctions on weapons sales and petroleum sales to President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime.

In short, it has all the hallmarks of the bill Menendez introduced last week, but with a bipartisan sheen. As Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the Menendez bill last week, "If you want to pressure the president into acting, it’s a pretty good bill …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." Its new bipartisan gloss could give it that much more power.

The legislation is set to be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a markup session scheduled for Tuesday, May 21. Here’s the release:

Menendez, Corker Introduce Syria Transition Support Act

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) today introduced the Syria Transition Support Act, bipartisan legislation that plans for a post-Assad Syria by offering humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, limited lethal and non-lethal weapons, and training to vetted Syrian groups.

"To change the tipping point in Syria against the Assad regime, we must support the opposition by providing lethal arms and help build a free Syria," Menendez said.  "Vital national interests are at stake and we cannot watch from the sidelines as the Iranian presence in Syria grows, a growing refugee crisis threatens to destabilize the region, chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups take root there."

"The future for Syria is uncertain, but the U.S. has a vested interest in trying to prevent an extremist takeover, which poses a very real risk for us and the region.  Without authorizing the use of force or additional spending, this legislation will begin to implement a more coherent U.S. strategy, both now and for the day after Assad, that is focused on trying to shift the momentum on the ground toward moderate opposition groups while also helping them build support within and outside Syria for a new government," said Corker. "This effort coupled with Russia’s willingness to participate in talks for political transition will give us the best opportunity for a better outcome."

The Menendez-Corker legislation includes six key elements.

  • Authority to provide arms, military training and non-lethal supplies to the Syrian armed opposition: Groups that have gone through a thorough vetting process which meet certain criteria on human-rights, terrorism, and non-proliferation would be eligible. A presidential waiver is included allowing for the distribution of anti-aircraft defensive systems with strict limitations.
  • Creation of a $250 million transition fund each year through FY2015 drawn from funds otherwise appropriated for regional transition support: To assist the civilian opposition in early transition institution building and maintenance of existing institutions, such as preserving security institutions, preventing regional spillover, promoting government formation, supporting transition justice, and reconciliation efforts.
  • Sanctions on arms and oil sales to Assad: Targeting any person that the President of the United States determines has knowingly participated in or facilitated a transaction related to the sale or transfer of military equipment, arms, petroleum, or petroleum products to the Assad regime.
  • Broad authority for humanitarian assistance: To ensure the administration is not hampered in its efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. This section does not authorize any new or additional funding.
  • Administration strategy: Requiring the administration to work with Congress and keep it fully apprised of strategy towards Syria, including working through the international community and Russia to find a political settlement.
  • Amendment to the Syria Accountability Act: To allow for sanctions removal once a transitional government is in place and certain terrorism and WMD criteria have been met.