NEW YORK, July 13, 2013 — Congress has blocked funding to arm rebels in Syria after months of telling President Barack Obama to give opposition groups weapons to help them oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The House and Senate Intelligence committees are holding up military aid in fear that terrorists may also get access to American arms.
This delay on Capitol Hill demonstrates a broader problem: U.S. policy on Syria is undecided.
Given the risk of handing weapons to extremists, Washington should be apprehensive.
Individual principles, rather than party lines, are not the bases of indecision among legislators. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY.) are among Republicans and Democrats in the House who believe arming opposition groups is a misstep.
Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) of the Foreign Relations Committee co-authored the Syria Transition Support Act, a bi-partisan bill to deliver humanitarian and arms assistance. The bill passed the committee vote, but is suspected of lacking sufficient support to move forward for a vote in the Senate.
Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for months has said that Obama should offer military aid. Now his committee is holding back on funding. It has been reported that the White House has not provide enough information about the military intervention strategy including the endgame.
“If we are going to arm, we have to make sure we have control of what arms are out there and how people are trained to use those arms so they don’t fall into the hands of our enemy al-Qaeda,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Only last month Ruppersberg responded positively to the President’s announcement to arm the Syrian insurgency.
Although Congress is right to be concerned about arming rebels, lawmakers should have made a thoughtful assessment before lobbying Obama to send weapons.
Even more puzzling, legally the administration does not need the approval of Congress to move forward. The Obama administration has the authority to ship weapons. The President can clearly send arms, but he won’t.
The delay in Washington indicates that the White House is either sending weapons in secret or is still figuring out a strategy.
Both scenarios are causes of concern. Outside of the Senate and House Intelligence committees, the White House has not shared its plans with Capitol Hill. The secrecy has raised criticism from Sen. Corker who said that the Obama administration is wrong to “hide such a fundamental foreign policy matter” from Congress and Americans. He went on to claim that, “This approach is not appropriate and it just wastes time at the expense of our national interests.”
Covert operations is nothing new to U.S. policy in Syria.
Since last year, the CIA and American troops have been secretly training the Syrian rebel group, the Free Syrian Army with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Regardless of the possible lack of strategy or secrecy, sending weapons to Syrian rebels is the wrong approach. Whether weapons has been or will be shipped the probability is high that America will inadvertently deliver arms to pro-Assad fighters and even groups linked to al-Qaeda.
The Obama administration announced last month that the Supreme Military Council, an insurgency group, would receive military assistance. The leaders of Supreme Military Council can be called as moderate group, but their decentralized control of the militias throughout Syria makes the organization incapable of filtering out extremists among their lower ranks- the Council has admitted to this problem.
There are also reports that many American weapons are in the possession of pro-Assad militias. Some received U.S. arms through the black market, where they were initially sold to Iraq in 2009, according to senior analyst, Christopher Harmer at the Institute for the Study of War. Moreover, he claims that thousands of weapons are floating around Iraq ready for sale in the black market after fighting there for nearly 10 years.
Iran-backed militias fighting for Assad have been found with American and Belgian arms, according to Phillip Smyth, an analyst for Jihadology.net, affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His research is based on more than 30 online forums and 100 Facebook pages. Smyth has also found photos on social media sites of Iranian with American made automatic assault rifles and bomb dischargers: M-16s and M-4s and M-203 grenade launchers.
Syrian rebels groups, some who are linked to the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate have been also found with similar arms according to British military analyst, Eliot Higgins. His finding is also based videos and photos on social media sites.
Considering that U.S. arms have a history of reaching the black market, it is far from realistic to believe that there is a way to guarantee weapons will not go to the wrong groups or individuals. Since Washington is stalling on sending military aid, the White House and Capitol Hill can go back to the drawing board to create a less risky strategy.
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