The Cable

House Gives Obama Authority to Arm and Train Syrian Rebels in Fight with the Islamic State

In a crucial vote of support for the White House’s declared war on Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, the House of Representatives voted to give President Barack Obama authority to arm and train Syrian rebels in the war-torn country. The plan passed 273-156 despite concerns by House Democrats about a new U.S. military ...

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Getty Images

In a crucial vote of support for the White House’s declared war on Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, the House of Representatives voted to give President Barack Obama authority to arm and train Syrian rebels in the war-torn country.

The plan passed 273-156 despite concerns by House Democrats about a new U.S. military commitment in the Middle East and Republican concerns that the president’s proposal is far too limited.

The administration’s request was an amendment to a must-pass, stopgap measure to keep the government running through mid-December. Although the amendment had the early support of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi D-Calif., a number of lawmakers in both parties began defecting, prompting a last-minute push by party leaders to build support.

New York’s Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said a range of top Democrats worked to the last minute to gather votes for the president’s plan, which would train some 5,000 Syrian rebels in the first year at facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Israel specifically cited Maryland’s Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, New York’s Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, New York’s Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Pelosi, as key backers of the plan. "It cuts across a broad range of members," he said.  

Publicly, Pelosi downplayed her role in lobbying support for the war effort. "We just don’t whip war votes," she told reporters, calling the decision a "vote of conscience" for her colleagues.

Having secured approval in the House, the bill now moves to the Senate, where it may receive a skeptical reception. In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry came under intense questioning about the White House’s plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.

Tennessee’s Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the committee, called the strategy "unserious" and a "political answer" to widespread outrage among the American public fueled by the barbaric tactics used by the Sunni-militant group.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, was deeply skeptical that the legal rationale articulated by the White House, which relies on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, grants the White House power to carry out military action against Islamic State in Syria. Calling the three-year Syrian civil war a "dog’s breakfast" of violence, carnage, and deceit, Durbin questioned how efforts to undermine the group also known as ISIS and ISIL would not inadvertently end up strengthening the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In an effort to reassure war-weary Americans, Obama spoke at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on Wednesday and ruled out deploying ground combat forces. "I want to be clear: The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission," he said.

Many lawmakers’ misgivings about arming the rebels stem from the lack of guarantees that the United States is working with and handing heavy weaponry to people that it can trust.

"There’s still a lot of questions on who the opposition is," said Oudai Shahbandar, a senior advisor to the Syrian opposition, who has been meeting with lawmakers and their staff about arming the rebels. For years now, that uncertainty has stalled efforts to train and equip the rebels, long before the Islamic State took over vast chunks of Iraq and drew the U.S. military back into engagement there.

The CIA is in charge of vetting the rebels, as part of a training program the agency runs at a base in Jordan. That vetting has gone painfully slow, say sources with direct knowledge of the process. Now, though, the White House says it’s starting to bear fruit.

"The president has been deliberate about vetting the elements of the Syrian opposition. And over the course of the last three years, the United States has gotten much greater clarity about which individuals in the region we can rely on and count on and work with, and which individuals, frankly, that we can’t," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week. In the past year, the U.S. has provided direct military assistance to the rebels, primarily in the form of heavy weapons.

Shahbandar argued that the rebels have demonstrated that they can be trusted not to let powerful weapons slip out of their control. "Not a single TOW missile has fallen into the wrong hands," he said. Last April, a YouTube video surfaced showing what appeared to be the first public confirmation that the rebels had obtained the TOW anti-tank missile. Such videos, which the rebels produce, are meant to build a public case that they know how to use the weapons and can be trusted with them.

That strategy sees to be working. "[The rebels’] capacity is expanding and improving," Earnest said last week, adding there’s "no doubt" that U.S. airstrikes "will significantly enhance their capability on the battlefield."

But sources working with the Syrian rebels say the program hasn’t produced a large enough group of soldiers to fight the Islamic State. That could fundamentally undermine the Obama administration’s strategy of fighting the militant group, which relies on the rebels to be the "boots on the ground" while the U.S. provides airstrikes.

"What the president has said he wants to do, he said more out of theory. You can’t fight someone with no one," said one person working with the Syrian opposition.

There’s also no plan to ensure that the U.S.-armed and trained rebel fighters stay focused on the administration’s main enemy. Testifying before Congress on Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. has "no agreement at all" with Syrian rebels to attack only Islamic State fighters instead of the Assad regime.

The White House might not want one. Officials have made no secret that they’d also like to use the rebels to weaken Assad. "We need to bolster the Syrian moderate opposition to enable it to be able to take and hold ground, pushing out both ISIL and the Assad regime," a senior administration official said last week shortly before Obama laid out his plan for fighting the militant group. "That is going to be essential to our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the organization."

How quickly the rebel-training program will get off the ground remains an open question. Sources working with the Syrian opposition said that crucial operational procedures have yet to be worked out. It’s not clear whether fighters in Syria would be removed from the battlefield, trained in Saudi Arabia, and then brought back to Syria, or if the Americans and their partners would recruit a new force from people outside the country. There are, for example, defected Syrian military officers in Turkey who could be brought into the fight. 

 Twitter: @shaneharris

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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