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Foreign Policy Magazine: Congress Deeply Skeptical of Funding for Syrian Rebels

July 16, 2014
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Foreign Policy Magazine - John Hudson

The Obama administration's new plan to break the stalemate in Syria is running into bipartisan opposition in Congress, raising fresh doubts about whether military aid promised to the Syrian rebels will arrive anytime soon, if at all.

The White House last month announced plans to provide moderate members of the Syrian opposition with $500 million worth of weapons, equipment, and training. Freeing up the money requires authorization from Congress, but after classified meetings this week, key lawmakers speaking to Foreign Policy -- including many Democrats -- remain deeply skeptical of the White House's plan. That spells trouble for Barack Obama's administration, which is trying to build support for the program as a part of the fiscal year 2015 defense appropriations and authorization bills under consideration in the House and Senate.

At issue is the degree to which the United States should try to aid Syria's beleaguered rebels. The CIA is currently providing training and small arms to rebels in Jordan who have been vetted for potential ties to extremists while Washington allows Persian Gulf countries to provide anti-tank missiles. The new Pentagon program would supplement or replace the CIA program, which has been criticized as too modest to make an impact on the battlefield, where Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has been steadily reclaiming lost territory. The money for the new program is contained in a supplement to the administration's "overseas contingency operations" (OCO) budget request. That money has long been used to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But lawmakers in both parties, including an array of Democrats, cited a slew of objections to the funding measure, including concerns about arming radical jihadists, further embroiling the United States in a distant civil war, and writing the White House a blank check subject to only modest congressional scrutiny.

Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur said funding for Syrian rebels should not be funded in the OCO budget, which is "not subject to the same rigorous oversight."

"I am concerned about any operation not funded in regular accounts, but rather through contingency funds," she said in a statement.

Kaptur, a member of the House's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, received a classified briefing on the program on Tuesday, July 15, from top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld. Other influential Democrats expressed misgivings about the administration's request as well.

"It's difficult for me to see this accelerating the end of the war in Syria," Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the Appropriations and Intelligence committees, told FP in an interview. "I think the burden is on the administration to demonstrate why this is going to help the situation and not risk just dragging us in further. I consider myself among the skeptics."

Republicans were even more critical. "I am not satisfied, convinced, or even confident that arming moderates in Syria is the right course of action or a dollar well spent," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told FP on Tuesday after attending the same classified briefing as Kaptur.

"Considering that the Department of Defense couldn't explain how the funds for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 were used, it makes me feel very uneasy to give them even more money, especially since it isn't clear how these supposed moderates are vetted," said Cole.

Another member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), told FP that it would be unwise to trust the rebels with such a large sum of funding and support. "How can we truly identify who these people are, and assure the American people that their alliances will not change?" he said in a statement.

That congressional opposition is making representatives of the Syrian opposition in Washington nervous.

On Tuesday, the Syrian opposition's envoy to the United States, Najib Ghadbian, wrote a letter to congressional appropriators urging them to approve the program. "We are asking our friends in Congress to authorize and appropriate the proposed Department of Defense train and equip program for moderate vetted Free Syrian Army units," wrote Ghadbian. "The United States has real national security interests at stake as the Free Syrian Army continue to lead the fight against international terrorist elements like the Islamic State."

A spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Oubai Shahbandar, called the Pentagon plan "crucial" to combatting both President Assad and Sunni extremist groups in the region. "We view Assad and ISIS as two sides of the same coin," he said Wednesday.

However, even early supporters of the Syrian rebels in Congress are beginning to back away from demands that the Obama administration ramp up military support in the conflict.

"It would've been a good plan two and a half years ago. I'm not sure it's a good plan today," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.

Citing a "whole host of problems" with arming the rebels, Rogers said there had been an alarming influx of Sunni extremists into Syria and faulted the White House for having no clear plan on how to manage the future course of the conflict. "I don't feel comfortable, not even close, with where they're at," he said, referring to the Obama administration.

To be sure, there are lawmakers who support greater military intervention in Syria today, even if they had hoped the assistance would've come sooner.

On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he'd still support the plan, but he lambasted the administration for failing to forcefully sell it to Congress.

"I want you to sell this successfully, so you need to sell it," he said during a committee hearing on Wednesday. He noted reservations about funding the rebels that are coming from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee as well.

Privately, multiple GOP aides accused the administration of purposefully botching the meetings with Congress because it never wanted to further intervene in Syria in the first place. "It doesn't feel like the administration even wants this," said a congressional aide.

Whatever the case, the shifting sands in the Syria debate is frustrating longtime backers of the rebels, such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I think people who say, stay out of it, a plague on all their houses, are making a terrible mistake," he said in an interview. "It's not hopeless. They can still be helped and they can still emerge as the preeminent rebels in Syria."

But one thing is clear: Many members of Congress, including those of influence, are nowhere near the point of saying yes to more military engagement in Syria. Even worse for the White House, members of the president's own party are among those most reluctant to give Obama what he wants.

Online: Foreign Policy Magazine