Exclusive: U.S. congressional hurdles lifted on arming Syrian rebels

WASHINGTON Mon Jul 22, 2013 6:45pm EDT

Free Syrian Army fighters move through a hole in a wall in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, after seizing it July 22, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

Free Syrian Army fighters move through a hole in a wall in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, after seizing it July 22, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Hamid Khatib

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama can go ahead with a plan for the United States to arm the struggling Syrian rebels after some congressional concerns were eased, a key Republican lawmaker said on Monday.

"We believe we are in a position that the administration can move forward," House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told Reuters.

The White House announced in June that it would offer military aid to vetted groups of Syrian rebels after two years of balking at directly sending arms to the opposition.

But both Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees had expressed worries that the arms could end up in the hands of Islamist militants in Syria like the Nusra Front, and would not be enough to tip the balance of the civil war against President Bashar al-Assad anyway.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who had questioned the wisdom of arming the insurgents had earlier tentatively agreed that the administration could go ahead with its plans, but sought updates as the covert effort proceeded.

Now, the House committee has also given at least a cautious go-ahead.

"It is important to note that there are still strong reservations," Rogers said. "We got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration's plans and intentions are in Syria consistent with committee reservations."

Supporters of the rebels hope the deliveries of U.S.-provided arms will start in August.

They hope for "a large number of small weapons" such as rifles and basic anti-tank weapons, said Louay Sakka, a co-founder of the Syrian Support Group, which backs the Free Syrian Army fighting Assad.

Committee sessions on arming the rebels are classified and have been held in secret. Senior government figures like Secretary of State John Kerry have briefed lawmakers behind closed doors to persuade them to back the White House's Syria strategy. Rogers said he still had "very strong concerns" about the plan's chances of success.

REBELS LAGGING

The mostly Sunni Muslim rebels have been struggling since government forces, helped by Lebanese Hezbollah allies, took the strategic town of Qusair in early June. Backed by warplanes and artillery, Assad is much better armed than the rebels.

Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, opposes sending U.S. arms to the rebels.

"It's too late to affect the outcome with a small amount of arms," Schiff said. "I think we would have to provide such a massive amount of arms, and additional military support to change the balance on the battlefield, that we would inevitably be drawn deeply into the civil war," he said.

"And I think we also have to expect that some of the weapons we provide are going to get into the hands of those who would use them against us," Schiff said.

He said his view is probably a minority one within the intelligence committee - but that for many Americans, after two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is "little appetite for getting involved in a third."

Obama has been reluctant to intervene in the civil war in Syria, in which more than 100,000 people have died.

Supported by Iran and Russia, Assad has looked increasingly stronger in recent months while the opposition has been fractured.

Clashes between Islamist rebel forces and Kurdish militias spread to a second Syrian province last weekend.

The fighting is further evidence that the 2011 uprising against Assad's rule has splintered into turf wars that have little to do with ousting him.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh)

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