Larry Downing / Reuters

Senate OKs Obama plan to arm, train Syria rebels

The 78-22 vote was final hurdle for president’s plan to arm vetted moderate rebels against ISIL in Syria

Congress cleared the way for the U.S. military to train and equip Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic state militants on Thursday, a reluctant ratification of a new strategy that President Barack Obama outlined scarcely a week ago.

The Senate voted 78-22 in a rare bipartisan show of support for one of Obama's high-profile initiatives, in the heat of an election campaign. The House approved the bill a day earlier.

In an appearance at the White House soon after the vote, Obama said he was pleased that a majority of Republicans and Democrats had supported the legislation.

"I believe our nation is strongest when the president and Congress work together," he said. Noting the killing of two Americans by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), he said that "as Americans we do not give in to fear" and would not be put off by such brutal tactics.

In the Senate, 44 Democrats, 33 Republicans and one independent voted for the bill, while nine Democrats, 12 Republicans and one independent opposed it.

The issue has created new fault lines for this fall's elections for control of the Senate as well as the 2016 race for the White House.

"Intervention that destabilizes the Middle East is a mistake. And yet, here we are again, wading into a civil war," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., laying down a marker for Republican presidential primaries still more than a year distant.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Ala., in a difficult re-election campaign, said, "I disagree with my president" on the wisdom of having the U.S. military become involved. "It is time for the Arab countries to step up and get over their regional differences" and be more aggressive in the fight against terrorists," he said.

The legislation combined approval for aid to the rebels with funds to prevent a government shutdown after Sept. 30 into a single vote, making it difficult to measure support for Obama's new military mission. Begich, for example, said he opposed arming the rebels, but voted for the bill.

For a second straight day, the administration dispatched top-ranking officials to reassure lawmakers — and the public — that no U.S. ground combat operation was in the offing. Obama made the same promise in an address to the nation eight days ago when he detailed his new policy.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told one House committee that Obama "is not going to order American combat ground forces into that area."

Obama's general plan is to have U.S. troops train Syrian rebels at camps in Saudi Arabia, a process that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said could take a year.

Additionally, the president has already said he will use existing authority to have the Pentagon deploy airstrikes against ISIL fighters in Syria as well as in Iraq.

Analysts have criticized Obama’s plan for Syria as doing far too little to change the balance of power on the ground, boosting the moderate rebel factions – the weakest group in Syria’s civil war – just enough to keep them going. The training program will take months to begin, and trained fighters might not be deployed back into Syria for another year.  

Nevertheless, leaders in both political parties supported the Senate legislation, draining the debate of all suspense.

Asked about approving Obama's plan in the wake of the war in Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "Iraq was a mistake. I was misled and I voted wrong. But this is not Iraq, this is a totally different thing."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also favored the legislation, yet said it must be followed by a top-to-bottom review of the administration's global military strategy.

Senate liberals split.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, conceded the threat posed by forces seeking an Islamic state. But he said countries in the Middle East most threatened had not yet joined the international coalition that Obama is assembling.

"Not only are countries in the region not stepping up in the fight ... but believe it or not several of these Gulf states are empowering" ISIL forces as well as Al-Qaeda-allied groups with financial contributions, he said.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Obama proposed a moderate, middle course between doing nothing in response to a terrorist threat and refighting the Iraq War. "Every civilized person has to stand up against this," she said.

While Democrats expressed fears that the legislation could lead the nation back into a war, some Republicans were skeptical that Obama's strategy was strong enough to prevail.

As a result, the legislation provided a narrow grant of authority that will expire on Dec. 11. It specifically stops short of approving the deployment of U.S. forces "into hostilities or into situations where hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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