U.S. plan to arm Syrian rebels stalls amid congressional disagreements

The Obama administration’s month-old plan to arm opposition fighters in Syria has stalled as a result of congressional disagreements over whether and how to aid the rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

To the growing frustration of those who won a long and contentious internal administration debate over the issue of supplying arms, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees remain divided on the proposal to send light weapons and ammunition to the rebel forces. Although administration officials initially estimated that supplies would be distributed “within weeks,” delivery has not begun.

Briefings and personal calls to Capitol Hill this week from top-level officials, including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and CIA Director John O. Brennan, have failed to shake strongly held views, according to administration officials and committee members.

“Congress has been pushing for months, asking for more aggressive actions in Syria. So it’s puzzling that when there’s actually a proposal on the table to do more, Congress is the one making it difficult to do so,” said an official familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing lawmakers.

Some want a more significant U.S. commitment, saying that the administration’s proposal is too little, too late. Others have voiced concerns that despite the administration’s assurances, U.S. weapons will fall into the hands of Islamist extremists fighting alongside the rebels.

A look at the Syrian uprising. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

A significant number of lawmakers reject any increased U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war and fear a slippery slope into another Middle East quagmire.

“There are a great many of us who applauded the president’s caution about not being dragged into this conflict and continue to have great concerns,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

“Primary for me is the concern that if we become an arms supplier . . . we’ll be sucked into another sectarian civil war,” Schiff said. “Providing a small amount won’t be enough to change the trajectory on the battlefield, and we’ll be called upon to give more, and more sophisticated weapons. . . . I think the risk is too great that once we get in, it will be very difficult to get out.”

Congress vs. administration

Under the administration’s plan, the arms shipments are to be undertaken as a covert action by the CIA. Although the administration must inform the intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, their approval and funding authorization are not required by law.

But seeking agreement is a long-held tradition. Congress has shown in the past that it is willing to use its budget power to prevent specific intelligence activities, as it did in the early 1980s with laws prohibiting funds for contra fighters seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s government.

White House spokesman Jay Carney refused Wednesday to comment on the substance of the dispute over supplying arms to Syrian rebels. “The president said we would consult with Congress, and that’s what we’re doing,” Carney said.

Outside the intelligence committees, senior congressional leaders have expressed outrage at the parameters of the program — too big or too small — and at not being briefed or asked to approve it.

“What they’re seeking . . . is to do this covertly, so that they never need to make a case to the American people and only a handful of people are involved,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think it’s terrible policy.”

Corker emphasized that he supports arming the rebels. But although he and Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) co-
sponsored a bill in May authorizing the administration to send weapons, Corker said, neither of them has been allowed into secret briefings on the plan.

“To act like this is covert, I’m sorry, is beyond ridiculous,” Corker said, noting that the administration itself publicly announced last month that it planned to provide direct, if unspecified, military support to the Syrian opposition.

“They’re being very clumsy about this,” he said, “and time’s a wastin’ ” to help the beleaguered rebels.

U.S. policy rethink

The administration’s convoluted path to deeper involvement in Syria began nearly two years ago, when repeated efforts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing intervention on behalf of Syrian civilians were thwarted by Russian vetoes. Russia is Assad’s primary diplomatic ally and arms supplier.

Without such authorization, the administration said, it was prohibited under international law from materially supporting the overthrow of a sitting government. The initial arming of the rebels was undertaken by Persian Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that did not feel bound by such restrictions.

The administration initially said it saw no need to add to the flood of arms pouring into Syria and would confine itself to humanitarian aid and guidance to opposition political organizations.

Throughout last year, a growing number of lawmakers from both parties — including then-Sen. Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee — called for increased U.S. involvement and consideration of a “no-fly” zone to protect civilians in rebel-held areas from Assad’s air bombardments. An administration debate over whether to send weapons was never resolved.

Early this year, the hands-off strategy appeared to be paying off, as rebel fighters made significant progress against Assad’s forces and Syrian opposition political leaders appeared to be moving toward organizing an alternative government.

But by spring, those gains were reversed. As government fighters, aided by Shiite Hezbollah and Iranian militias, took back territory lost months before, the largely Sunni political opposition fell into increasing disarray and growing numbers of Syrian refugees threatened to overrun neighboring countries.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar were willing to step up their arms shipments — including missiles sought by rebel forces to fend off Assad’s aircraft and tanks — and Britain and France successfully engineered the lapse of a European Union embargo against sending weapons to Syria. But these countries and others looked to the U.S. leadership to coordinate their efforts and prevent the collapse of Syria, and the entire region, into sectarian war.

In recent months, Kerry has negotiated with Russia in pursuit of a political solution and tried to organize both the Syrian opposition and its supporters. Under Brennan, the CIA has expanded training, logistics and intelligence hubs to aid Syrian rebels in Jordan and Turkey. Both argued, along with White House national security officials, that the administration needed to have what one official called “skin in the game,” in the form of weapons shipments, to provide effective leadership.

President Obama finally agreed and authorized planning. To avoid possible international-law complications and a protracted public debate in Congress, he approved the covert-action proposal for limited weapons supplies on June 13. Administration officials made clear that they were willing to consider escalated intervention — including airstrikes against government installations and a possible no-fly zone — if that proved necessary.

As required by law, Kerry and Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell briefed the House and Senate intelligence committees on June 19 and 20. On the 21st, Kerry left for an extended overseas trip, including meetings with foreign partners to discuss the new U.S. policy.

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