Obama Boosts Syria Support as Congress Pushes Military
By Samer Araabi
March 24, 2013 "Information
- As the Syrian uprising enters its third year, the United
States and its allies are preparing to materially increase their
support of the armed opposition in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry pledged an additional 60 million
dollars in direct aid to the rebels, marking the first time
Washington will directly supply rebel forces, but the
administration appears as wary as ever to get more directly
The provision of battlefield materiel has been met with some
support from hawks who have pushed for greater military
intervention, though many policymakers have urged the president
to go even further. Exhortations for intervention have increased
since rumours began of a chemical weapons attack in Aleppo.
Though U.S. officials have largely dismissed the reports, many
members of Congress expressed concern about the use of weapons
of mass destruction in Syria.
On Monday, Rep. Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the
House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that
would authorise funding for “limited lethal assistance” to
Syrian opposition groups, assuming that the groups would be
carefully vetted in the process.
Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin
concluded a Senate hearing on Syria by stating that a no-fly
zone would “be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing
down the Assad regime”.
During the hearing, Senator John McCain reiterated his long-held
position that the U.S. should intervene more directly in the
uprising. Levin and McCain have signed on to a letter urging
President Obama to establish no-fly zones and provide more
military aid to rebels.
Both the House legislation and the Senate letter were applauded
in a press release Thursday from the Foreign Policy Initiative,
the think-tank successor to the neoconservative Project for a
New American Century: “This week, key members of Congress
stepped into the void of U.S. leadership on the Syria conflict,
calling for action to end the Assad regime’s slaughter of the
Syrian people and avoid an even greater regional catastrophe.”
But the boldest military endorsement thus far came from Senator
Lindsey Graham, who responded to rumours of the chemical attack
by stating, “You’ve got to get on the ground. There is no
substitute…I don’t care what it takes…I vote to cut this off
before it becomes a problem.”
The Obama administration and senior military officials have
pushed back against this type of involvement. Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey said earlier this week, “I
don’t think at this point I can see a military option that would
create an understandable outcome. And until I do, it would be my
advice to proceed cautiously.”
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at
the Institute for Policy Studies, warns that this should not be
taken to imply that the appetite for any intervention is low.
“They’re clearly already involved in the armed opposition,”
Bennis told IPS. “The CIA is on the ground helping sort out who
should get money, and they’re training people in Jordan. The
idea is, they don’t want to get involved any further.”
Prominent Republicans from both sides of the aisle have also
expressed concern about further militarising the conflict. At a
House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman
Ed Royce concurred with the sentiment that “the U.S. has no good
options in Syria,” and Rep. Karen Bass warned that the Syrian
opposition leaders are too weak to be credible in Syria.
“Who are those good rebels we want to arm?” asked Leslie Gelb,
president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The
interventionists seem to take for granted that we know them
well. The fact is, the interventionists themselves and the U.S.
government don’t know squat about Syria and know even less squat
about these rebels.”
The Free Syrian Army, the moniker bestowed on disparate militias
and defected military units that have become the primary vehicle
of the anti-Assad opposition, still lacks a functional central
structure, and many fear that it has grown increasingly beholden
to extremist Salafi groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra.
“The very real risk in the U.S. providing arms even to those we
believe to be moderate Sunni rebels is that even if they do
better, and Assad’s regime is weakened, who would be the real
beneficiary?” writes Gelb. “No one disputes that the extremist
jihadis are far better positioned to take advantage of defeating
The Central Intelligence Agency, Defence Department, and State
Department have been vetting opposition elements in Jordan and
Turkey, attempting to identify “friendly” groups and individuals
to furnish with U.S. support, but the process has been fraught
Though the presence of U.S. officials in surrounding states has
become near-ubiquitous, Washington continues to suffer from a
significant deficit of information from inside Syria itself.
This not only precludes the ability to identify friendly (or
antagonistic) actors that remain within the Syrian borders, but
also the knowledge of what happens to U.S. materiel after it
crosses into Syria.
Nevertheless, the changing U.S. position is a clear indication
of a shift away from President Obama’s expectation that the
uprising would topple Bashar Al-Assad without added U.S.
“Obama would have preferred not to get involved at all,” said
Bennis, “but that’s not an option. Others are eager to get
involved, but their rationale is political, not based on
According to Gelb, “There is one path to sensible strategy and
to staying out of trouble. It is for America’s leaders in
Congress, the media, and, above all, the administration to learn
the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam and get themselves
to satisfactorily ask and reasonably answer the tough questions
before we selflessly, inadvertently, and foolishly find
ourselves in another war.”
But as exhortations to further intervention rise, the tenor in
Washington appears to be moving decidedly in the other
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