House debate on the fiscal 2014 defense spending bill Tuesday exposed lawmakers’ unease over arming Syrian rebels, even as congressional intelligence committees approved CIA plans to supply weapons to opposition forces.
Democrats and Republicans tried to put forward several amendments to limit the Obama administration’s actions on Syria, but House leaders managed to keep the number of considered amendments to about 100.
“The last thing I want to do is arm rebels,” said Rep. Richard B. Nugent, Florida Republican and a father of three sons serving in the military. “I want to make sure our sons and daughters are not in harm’s way.”
Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said “there’s a real split” in Congress over arming Syria’s rebels and criticized the limitation on defense bill amendments.
“This rule denies any real substantive debate,” Mr. McGovern said. “I hope a few years down the road we don’t look back [at how we got] sucked into this war without real debate.”
Members of Congress have long expressed concerns about the U.S. becoming involved in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war. Some have voiced reservations about arming the rebels, who include jihadists and militants among their numbers, and fears about U.S. weapons falling into the wrong hands.
Other lawmakers have argued that arming the rebels would not be enough to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, noting Iran’s and Hezbollah’s support for his regime, and have called for direct U.S. military intervention such as establishing no-fly zones and deploying U.S. troops.
President Obama last month authorized arming the rebels after concluding that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons against the opposition.
With some reservations, Congress’ intelligence committees approved CIA plans to ship weapons to the Syrian opposition.
“The House intelligence committee has very strong concerns about the strength of the administration’s plans in Syria and its chances for success,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans.”
According to congressional officials, the deal with the oversight committees allows the CIA to use previously appropriated funds to pay for the weapons supplies. Shipments should begin within weeks.
Media reports have revealed the existence of a CIA operation in Jordan that has been providing training and nonlethal aid to rebel brigades identified by U.S. intelligence as “moderates.”
However, U.S. military intervention in Syria likely would cost billions of dollars and carry several risks for the forces involved, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in letter that was released Monday.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition said Tuesday that Lebanese Hezbollah leaders should be put on trial for fighting on the side of the Assad regime.