One of the top Democratic lawmakers on foreign policy is preparing to introduce a bill that would authorize President Obama to begin sending arms directly to rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad — legislation that would open the way for significantly deeper U.S. involvement in Syria's bloody civil war.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would authorize "the president to provide vetted Syrian opposition members with appropriate lethal military assistance," according to a summary of the legislation obtained by The Washington Times.
The bill would also clear the way for "a program to facilitate destruction of Syrian chemical and biological weapons."
It was unclear on Wednesday how widely the measure will be supported by other Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Obama's top advisers have been divided for months over whether to embrace a policy of directly arming Syria's rebels.
An estimated 70,000 Syrians have been killed in fighting since military forces loyal to Mr. Assad began cracking down on opposition groups in March 2011. A handful of Republicans -- most notably Sen. John McCain of Arizona — have long called for arming the opposition groups.
A report by the Associated Press this week said that the White House was considering moving toward a policy of sending direct assistance to elements of the Free Syrian Army, one of the groups fighting for Mr. Assad's ouster.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, welcomed the news Wednesday, saying the U.S. must do what it can to make sure the rebels forces are on its side after President Bashar Assad is ousted.
But in testimony earlier this month, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed that he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey backed a plan to send weapons to rebels in Syria months ago — but the White House blocked it.
The revelation came after a report by The New York Times outlined how former CIA Director David H. Petraeus had developed the plan, which former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also supported.
Publicly, the White House and officials at the State Department have resisted sending weapons to Syria, cited concerns that American arms could end up in the hands of terrorists. Mrs. Clinton and others have pointed to reports that al Qaeda-linked and other militant Islamists groups were present in the nation.
Mr. Engel voiced confidence on Wednesday that such risks could be overcome. He also suggested that by not sending weapons, the U.S. is presently missing an opportunity to influence who ultimately ends up in power in Syria.
"President Assad's days are numbered and no longer can we watch from the sidelines as Syria goes from bad to worse," he said. "Now is the time to arm friendly rebels and turn the tide to allow for a more hopeful Syrian future."
He added that "ridding Syria of Assad will provide a strategic setback to Iran, which uses Syria as a pass-through to prop up their terrorist proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon."
Apart from opening the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels, the so-called "Free Syria Act of 2013, which Mr. Engel is expected to introduce within the next few days, would also authorize President Obama to create a "Syria Transition Fund."
The fund would be used to provide assistance toward Syria's "transition to peace, democracy and sustainable development under the appropriate governance conditions."
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