The U.S. and several European allies reportedly are warming to the idea of shipping nonmilitary aid to rebels fighting in Syria, but one top Democratic lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would go further by authorizing arms transfers to those fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The proposal by Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, 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, which Mr. Engel expects to introduce within the next several days, also would clear the way for "a program to facilitate destruction of Syrian chemical and biological weapons."
It was unclear Wednesday how widely the measure will be supported by other Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
President Obama's top advisers have been divided for months over whether to embrace a policy of directly arming Syria's rebels, though Secretary of State John F. Kerry is expected at a conference in Rome on Thursday to escalate U.S. and other foreign involvement.
According to reports from The Associated Press, Mr. Kerry is likely to announce plans to deliver the first direct U.S. assistance -- meals, medical kits and other forms of nonlethal aid -- to elements of the Free Syrian Army, one of the groups fighting to oust Mr. Assad.
Although the U.S. isn't planning to supply the Free Syrian Army with military aid, U.S. and European officials say Britain and France are eager to go further in that direction, by providing such defensive military equipment as vehicles and body armor to let the rebels protect themselves against Mr. Assad's forces. The U.S. reportedly is resisting those moves.
Washington has provided $385 million in humanitarian aid and $54 million in communications equipment, medical supplies and other nonlethal aid to Syria's civilian anti-Assad groups.
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.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, joined that chorus Wednesday, saying the U.S. must do what it can to make sure the rebel forces are on its side after Mr. Assad is ousted and must demonstrate it by providing lethal military assistance now.
"We should want the best organized, the best equipped and most dominant groups in the opposition to be groups that are friendlier to our national interests," he said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Publicly, the White House and officials at the State Department have resisted sending weapons to Syria, citing concerns that American arms could end up in the hands of terrorists. As Mr. Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Rodham 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 Wednesday that such risks could be overcome. He also suggested that by not sending weapons, the U.S. is 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."
Apart from opening the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels, the so-called Free Syria Act of 2013 also would authorize Mr. Obama to create a "Syria Transition Fund" to provide assistance toward Syria's "transition to peace, democracy and sustainable development under the appropriate governance conditions."
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