US lethal aid to Syrian rebels: What's the holdup?

Concern in congressional intelligence committees over the prospects of US small arms falling into the wrong hands has delayed the lethal aid to Syrian rebels. Some say it may arrive too late.

Aleppo Media Center AMC/AP
This citizen journalism image shows Syrian rebels running during heavy clashes with Syrian soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in the Salah al-Din neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, July 9. Syria is entering its third year of a war that began as an uprising against the rule of Mr. Assad.

The limited lethal aid President Obama pledged to Syrian rebels a month ago is bottled up in dispute and remains at least weeks from delivery as Congress fights over who should be consulted about the administration’s plans, and whether the proposed US aid is too little – or should even go forward.

In the meantime, the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continue to make critical gains on the ground. Rebels holed up in the critical crossroads of Homs say the city, which they have held for over a year, could fall to the regime any day, prompting growing fears that any US aid would now arrive too late.

The administration began consulting congressional intelligence committees about providing vetted rebel groups with small arms and ammunition shortly after Mr. Obama announced the plan June 13.

Members of Congress from other committees are miffed they have not been briefed on the plan. But a more critical roadblock to the aid is the limits that congressional intelligence committees have voted to place on the arms shipments.

While committee members have been unwilling to divulge the specifics of the limitations, the motivation behind the votes appears to be an overriding concern that American arms will fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists fighting among the rebels.

Over recent months, Islamist organizations including Al-Nusra Front, designated a terrorist organization by the State Department, have made substantial gains and have seized chunks of Syrian territory – even as the moderate rebel groups the US is working with have been unable to overcome internal bickering.

Reports from Syria suggest that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have taken advantage of disputes within the Free Syrian Army to seize territory the FSA won from Mr. Assad’s control. Leaders of the Al Qaeda affiliates boast to reporters and on the Internet that the areas they are holding are the seed of a coming Syrian Islamist state.  

All of this has left many members of Congress leery about providing any arms to the rebels – even as others in Congress argue that the small arms the White House wants to provide will do nothing to tip the balance in the rebels' favor. Instead, they say the US should provide heavy weaponry and implement other measures such as a no-fly zone to stop the devastating aerial bombing being carried out against rebel strongholds by the Assad regime.

The arms shipments Obama is proposing are to be delivered covertly by the CIA, and do not require congressional approval. But the White House has said since the president announced his intentions – after determining that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on several occasions over recent months – that it would consult Congress on the arms plan.

“The president said we would consult with Congress, and that’s what we’re doing,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

Some in Congress fault the administration for what they say has been a half-hearted attempt to inform Congress and get it on board with its plans. Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, a prominent supporter of aid to the rebels, notes that the Foreign Relations Committee he sits on has not been consulted about the administration’s plans on the pretext that it is a covert initiative and thus pertains to intelligence committees.

The State Department counters that the US is going to great lengths to ensure that any lethal weaponry shipped to Syria stays with vetted fighters and does not slip into the hands of anti-Western extremists.

“We have taken steps throughout this process to do everything possible to ensure that any aid is making it into the right hands,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday, pointing in particular to a decision earlier this year to route any military assistance through the FSA’s Supreme Military Council headed by Gen. Salem Idris. 

As for consultations with Congress, Ms. Psaki said that as a former senator, Secretary of State John Kerry understands the importance of consultations and will continue to work with Congress to move the aid forward.

“We have ongoing discussions with Congress about everything related to aid to Syria … and the secretary himself has been engaged in not only briefings but conversations on the phone and meetings himself, and will continue that,” she said.

But she also seemed to acknowledge that differences on lethal aid to Syria are holding things up. Noting that many of the issues “are not black and white,” she added, “We know that if decisions were easy around Syria, then they would have been made earlier.”

Still, as the congressional delays stall the arms deliveries, Syria’s rebels continue to suffer losses.

On Tuesday, Psaki noted United Nations estimates that 4,000 Syrians are “trapped” in Homs without food, water, electricity, or any kind of assistance, as the Assad forces’ offensive continues.

“We are very concerned, as the UN and others are, about the inability for humanitarian assistance to get through,” she said.

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