September 18, 2014 / 10:46 PM / 6 years ago

U.S. Congress approves arming Syrian rebels, funding government

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate approved President Barack Obama’s plan for training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to battle Islamic State militants on Thursday, a major part of his military campaign to “degrade and destroy” the radical group.

Free Syrian Army fighters carry a rocket before firing it towards Hama military airport that is controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Hama countryside July 25, 2014. Picture taken July 25, 2014. REUTERS/Badi Khlif

The Senate voted 78-22, in a rare bipartisan show of support for one of Obama’s high-profile initiatives.

With the House of Representatives approving the legislation on Wednesday, the measure now goes to Obama to sign into law.

Ten Senate Democrats and 12 Republicans voted no. Some objected to including a “war vote” in a spending bill.

Others worried that getting involved with the rebels would lead to broader involvement in Iraq or Syria’s civil war or that any arms given to them might fall into the wrong hands and end up being used against U.S. forces or their allies.

“We must now defend ourselves from these barbarous jihadists, but let’s not compound the problem by arming feckless rebels in Syria who seem to be merely a pit stop for weapons that are really on their way to ISIS,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a leading Republican skeptic about foreign military involvement.

“ISIS” refers to the Islamic State in Syria.

The rebels have been fighting a three-year-long civil war seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has held onto power despite the rise of the Islamic State group and a long covert U.S. effort to back the moderate fighters.

The amendment to arm and train the rebels passed the House on a vote of 273-156, with support - and opposition - divided between Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Obama sought the authorization to have some congressional buy-in for his plan to stop the violent Islamic State militants, whose takeover of large parts of Iraq and Syria is seen as a threat to U.S. national security.

The measure was written as an amendment to a spending bill that would keep the U.S. government operating on Oct. 1, the start of a new fiscal year.

If Obama signs it into law as expected, the authority to train and arm the rebels would expire on Dec. 11.

The legislation is likely just the start of a debate over what longer-term role the U.S. military should have in battling the Sunni Islamist militants who have killed thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, declared war on the West and are held responsible for beheading two American journalists in recent weeks.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by John Whitesides, Howard Goller and Eric Walsh

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