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.