House approves US arms for Syrian rebels

Vote to authorize Obama plan went through but with sizable cross-party opposition

The House of Representatives has approved President Barack Obama's plan to train and arm Syrian rebels that the U.S. classify as moderate, but questions remain over whether Washington will hand over advanced weapons that such groups say they need in order to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The House voted 273 to 156 on Wednesday to authorize the strategy in a test of support for Obama's stepped-up campaign to, as he put it, "degrade and destroy" ISIL fighters who have seized swaths of Iraq and Syria as they seek to expand a self-declared caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.

Written as an amendment to a stopgap spending bill, the measure does not earmark any new money to pay for the arms or training. It passed with support from Democrats and Republicans, despite significant opposition from members of both parties.

Voting for the amendment were 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats, and 71 Republicans and 85 Democrats voted against.

The spending bill — including the training plan — will go to Obama to be signed into law only after it passes the Senate. That move is expected to come as early as Thursday.

Facing resistance by war-weary lawmakers in Obama's own party, the administration reached across the aisle to Republicans for support — a rare bipartisan moment in an otherwise polarized Congress.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday showed that while the Americans surveyed supported Obama's campaign of airstrikes against ISIL, they largely opposed a drawn-out military campaign against the group.

The authorization backed by the House lasts only until Dec. 11, the day the spending bill expires. The bill allows the Pentagon to submit requests later to shift funds in the budget if it decides it needs funds for the program.

The amendment does not provide details about the training plan, prompting some lawmakers to fear that a yes vote could mean authorizing shipments of military equipment that might end up in the wrong hands and possibly even kill Americans.

Unanswered questions

"There are too many unanswered questions for me to support this amendment," said Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat whose district includes Oakland and Berkeley. "How will we ensure that the United States weapons we are providing to Syrian rebels will not get into the wrong hands, as they did with the rebels we supported in Libya?"

The amendment does not include $500 million that the White House says it needs to arm and train the rebels, who have been waging a three-year battle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was written to quickly provide the authority Obama wanted while avoiding a debate on the money.

Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed political opposition group, called the House vote "an important step forward" in establishing a partnership between Washington and the Syrian opposition.

"We worked hard to make the case that the Free Syrian Army is the sole solution to degrading and defeating [ISIL]. We have a long road ahead, but the overwhelming support in Congress for our cause is encouraging," he said from Istanbul.

Obama said in a nationally televised speech last week that he wants to train and equip factions of the Free Syrian Army to "strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the extremists" and to prevent U.S. troops from "being dragged into another ground war."

But critics of the plan note the Free Syrian Army is among the weakest factions on the ground in Syria right now, having lost ground to the better-funded ISIL in the north and east as the Assad regime retakes territory elsewhere in Syria.

There are also fears of a deeper U.S. troop involvement. Those fears were fanned on Tuesday by U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who raised the possibility that American troops might need to take on a larger role in Iraq's ground war. But such a move would first necessitate a request from Baghdad. 

Meanwhile, U.S. defense officials have said they expect to recruit and train about 5,000 vetted moderate rebel fighters.

Military officials say there is support within the Pentagon for supplying the rebels with weapons beyond small arms and ammunition, including battlefield artillery, anti-tank rockets and mortars.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said the program could start with small arms and then possibly graduate to heavier weapons, such as "armored personnel carriers, artillery, real air defense capability," but declined to say whether such plans had been discussed in classified briefings.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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