WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged on Wednesday to ramp up support for the moderate opposition in Syria’s civil war, but U.S. officials said the effort was in its early stages and would need approval from Congress for any U.S. military role.
Obama told cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that it was the right decision not to put U.S. troops in “the middle of the increasingly sectarian war.”
But, he added, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.”
The president has come under fire from opponents for not offering more substantial support for rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. officials said later on Wednesday that the White House wanted to work with Congress to obtain the authority necessary for the U.S. military to support the moderate Syrian opposition with equipment or training.
The United States is already giving some military assistance to the Syrian opposition, but it has not disclosed how much. The U.S. military’s role has been to pass on non-lethal aid.
“What we’re saying today ... is not only do we want to continue to increase the assistance that we provide to the Syrian opposition, but we do want to have this discussion with Congress about the potential for there to be a role for the U.S. military in that effort,” one senior administration official said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
The official noted that Senator Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had proposed legislation to authorize the U.S. military to provide training and equipment to approved members of the Syrian opposition.
He said the provision, part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) sent to the full Senate for consideration last week, was a sign of “an emerging view in Congress that is supportive of providing the ... authority for the United States military to participate in support for the opposition.”
Levin’s staff said the measure would allow Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to provide equipment and training for vetted members of the Syrian opposition. The proposal does not specify what type of equipment the Syrian opposition could receive, leaving that decision to the administration.
Before Obama can sign the measure into law, it has to be approved by the Senate and reconciled with the version of the NDAA approved by the House of Representatives, which does not include a similar provision.
In its report on the NDAA, the House Armed Services Committee said it reserved “judgment on any plan to train and
equip select elements of the Syrian opposition until it understands the details of such plan or proposed authority, including how it fits into a broader strategy and policy.”
Reporting by David Alexander and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Toni Reinhold