White House lobbies Congress to overcome Syria arms deadlock

WASHINGTON Tue Jul 9, 2013 9:04pm EDT

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare for an offensive against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood, July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Malek Alshemali

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare for an offensive against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's Salaheddine neighborhood, July 6, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Malek Alshemali

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry are lobbying members of Congress to try to break an impasse over White House plans to send arms to Syrian rebels, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers fear the weapons will end up in the hands of Islamist militants, and will not be enough to tip the balance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad anyway.

Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees have advised the White House to delay sending weapons to the anti-Assad insurgents, Reuters reported on Monday. The committees signaled they wanted to put the brakes on funding for the operation after secret briefings by senior officials.

No U.S. arms have reached the rebels, who are struggling to hold back an offensive by the better-equipped Syrian government.

Biden, who is often used by the White House to negotiate difficult deals, spoke to members of Congress on Tuesday to persuade them to back the Syria arms plan, U.S. officials and a congressional source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

"Biden was making phone calls today," to lobby Congress, the congressional source said. U.S. officials also said CIA Director John Brennan, whose agency would run most of the arms operation, was part of the lobbying effort.

After two years of avoiding involvement in Syria, the White House said on June 13 that it wanted to arm rebels but would vet them to make sure weapons did not go to extremist groups like the Nusra Front, which is seen as front for al Qaeda in Iraq.

"We have consistently stepped up on our assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we are engaged with Congress in discussions about that policy and why we believe it's the correct policy," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday. Biden's office and the CIA declined to comment.

Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said there is "broad skepticism" in Congress about whether the United States can guarantee where the weapons will end up. He said Americans are wary of further U.S. involvement in a region that is torn with sectarian and political strife.

"I think the American public is very skeptical of involvement in another civil war," he said.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday showed only 13 percent of Americans think the United States should intervene in Syria. But that number rose to 30 percent when people were asked if the United States should intervene if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons.

The White House says its main reason for wanting to arm the rebels is that Assad has deployed chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, multiple times. Other U.S. officials say President Barack Obama is worried about recent battlefield gains by Assad and his deployment of Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon.

ADMINISTRATION SPLIT

The Obama administration is still divided about what to do on Syria, said Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Parts of the administration would like to see an upping of the military pressure ...(but) I don't think everybody agrees inside the administration," Levin said. "But the president makes the decision and so far the decision is what he announced."

Current and former administration officials say that Kerry has argued for greater U.S. support for the rebels while others, particularly in the CIA and Pentagon, have cautioned against it.

Kerry and CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell briefed members of the intelligence committees on the case for arming the rebels during closed-door meetings in late June.

National security sources familiar with their presentations said the main problem was that both men gave the impression that the administration itself had reservations about providing arms to the rebels.

In his briefing, Morell acknowledged that the CIA, which would largely take charge of arms deliveries, did not believe the weaponry would give anti-Assad forces a winning advantage. He also could not guarantee that the weapons would not fall into the hands of anti-American extremists, the sources said.

Paul Pillar, a former CIA expert on the Middle East, said that if the administration's effort on Syria "seems tardy and confused, that is because there is simply no good way to implement it without immediately running into these hazards, which the administration, to its credit, evidently recognizes and understands."

He added that the Obama administration also has a "well-founded worry about a slippery slope on which it slides into deeper involvement in the war which it does not want, and which it understands the American people do not want."

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)

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