The Cable

Congress Approves Arming of Syrian Rebels

The last time President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve military action in Syria, Democrats and Republicans united against him. This time, they’ve got his back. On Thursday, the Senate followed the House in authorizing a program that would train-and-equip Syrian rebels, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic ...

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Syrian fighters from a group calling themselves "The right bombs squad", many of who left their studies and jobs to join rebels, hold their weapons at a checkpoint controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at Epin, in the north-western province of Idlib, on April 15, 2012. Syrian opposition activists organised protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime on April 20, 2012, in a new test of its readiness to honour a peace plan UN chief Ban Ki-moon said it has so far failed to heed. AFP PHOTO/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

The last time President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve military action in Syria, Democrats and Republicans united against him.

This time, they’ve got his back.

On Thursday, the Senate followed the House in authorizing a program that would train-and-equip Syrian rebels, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Though the administration has conceded that the program alone is too limited to succeed in eradicating the Sunni militant group — and that it has no agreement with the Syrian rebels to direct their attacks against the Islamic State as opposed to the Syrian government, lawmakers approved the measure with a 78-22 vote.

The relatively easy passage of the measure speaks to the motivating influence of the Islamic State’s horrifying beheading videos of American journalists Steven Satloff and James Foley and British aid worker David Haines and the administration’s legislative strategy of linking the training program to a must-pass spending bill needed to keep the government running until mid-December.

In the hours of debate leading up to the vote, senators spoke ominously about the threat the Islamic State poses to the homeland and the importance of voting "yea," despite the intelligence community’s assessment that the group formerly known as ISIS or ISIL is not plotting an attack on U.S. soil.

"If we do nothing, ISIL continues to grow and the threat to our homeland continues to increase," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on the Senate floor. "If they survive our best attempt to defeat them, God help us all."

A number of influential and hawkish Democrats lent their strong support for the measure as well, which would train 5,000 Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia. "We must stand with our partners in the region to confront this barbarism in the interest of all the individuals being brutalized by ISIL – but also because regional stability, and European and U.S. security demand it," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on the floor.

Still, concerns about how the CIA will properly vet moderate members of the Syrian opposition continued to weigh heavily on senators in both parties. "Who are we really arming? What will be the result? Where will the arms end up?" asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). "There are too many here who believe they have the answers to these questions, when they do not, indeed when all indicators are that it may well be unknowable."

Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, echoed Paul’s fears. "I fear very much that supporting questionable groups in Syria who will be outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the [President Bashar al-]Assad regime could open the door to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement," he said.

Questions about the substance of the train-and-equip program came up this week as senior members of the Obama administration testified before Congress about the anti-ISIS strategy. On Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that many preliminary aspects of the plan were not yet in place. The revelation came after Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked whether the U.S. secured an agreement with the Syrian rebels that they will fight the Islamic State instead of their sworn enemy, Assad.

"No, we do not have any agreements at all, because we haven’t begun the recruiting effort," Dempsey said. "We haven’t really done anything but come up with a concept."

How quickly the rebel-training program will become operational remains an open question. According to Syrian opposition sources, 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.

Shortly after the vote, the president applauded Congress for taking action in support of his anti-IS effort. Earlier in the day, French President Francois Hollande said Paris would also support the anti-IS effort by launching air strikes against IS militants in Iraq. 

 

Shane Harris contributed to this report.

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