President Obama faces mounting bipartisan pressure for the U.S. to become more deeply involved in Syria's civil war, with a key Senate panel pushing through legislation Tuesday that would clear the way for the administration to supply weapons to rebels fighters in the Mideast nation.
It was not yet clear when — or whether — the full Senate will vote on the measure, which calls for a stark strategy shift so far resisted by Mr. Obama on grounds that the risks are too high that American military hardware will flow into the hands of radical Islamist terrorists among those fighting for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Concern about such risks was on full display Tuesday during a fiery Senate Committee on Foreign Relations debate on the legislation that would give the administration power to "provide defense articles, defense services and military training" to rebel fighters who "have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States."
The legislation, which was passed by the panel on a 15-3 vote, does not identify specific types of weapons that should go to the rebels, but suggests predominantly small arms since its language states that "no anti-aircraft defensive systems may be transferred as part of the assistance authorized."
Introduced by committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, and ranking Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the bill offers a range of benchmarks to be met by rebels in the "vetting" process — including a requirement that all recipients of American arms be "committed to rejecting terrorism and extremist ideologies."
Despite such language and broad support from the committee's Democrats and Republicans, the bill faced resistance from both sides of the aisle, with Sens. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, joining Democrats Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico in voting against its passage.
Mr. Paul, an outspoken critic of U.S. interventionist policies, was most vocal, telling the committee it was making a "huge mistake" in advocating the movement of American guns into a war zone rife with Islamist fighters bent on killing Christians in Syria.
"You will be funding today the allies of al Qaeda," said Mr. Paul. "It is an irony you cannot overcome."
Another irony is that Mr. Paul's position mirrors that of President Obama, who has strongly resisted calls to arm Syria's rebels both from Capitol Hill and from some of his own top advisers.
While news reports suggest the White House already has authorized a limited degree of secret training for select groups of rebels, the president has consistently rejected calls to directly arm those fighting to overthrow Mr. Assad.
Recent months saw several former Cabinet-level officials claim they had pushed Mr. Obama to embrace a plan to send weapons into Syria, but the White House and State Department have publicly resisted, citing the presence of Islamist extremists in the war.
The State Department last week added Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of a group known as the al-Nusrah Front, to its official list of "Specially Designated Global Terrorists." In making the designation, the department said video footage proves al-Jawlani's goal is to overthrow the Assad government and replace it with one "of Islamist Shariah law throughout the country."
In pushing through Tuesday's bill, Mr. Menendez said he and his colleagues have worked diligently to address concerns about terrorists in Syria, and stressed the proposed legislation includes a "tough vetting mechanism."
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.
Noting the economic and societal strain now being put on Syria's neighbors — including U.S. allies Jordan and Turkey — by the more than 1 million refugees spawned by the war, Mr. Menendez said the U.S. is faced with the responsibility of taking a leadership role in the conflict.
Furthermore, he said, without "stepping up" to such a role, other nations in the region "would simply allow weapons to flow into Syria."
While most on the committee agreed, some argued that the proposed legislation did not go far enough.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, was the most vocal in arguing that the U.S. would "have to do much more" than called for in the bill "if we are going to reverse the tide" of Syria's war.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and others argued that the movement of American weapons to the rebels is a key step if Washington hopes to secure any kind of influence with forces destined to fill the vacuum of power in Syria should Mr. Assad finally be ousted.
His position was echoed Tuesday by Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has for months been pushing a House resolution with similar wording to the Senate legislation.
Without more aggressively supporting the "moderate opposition" in Syria, "we leave the field to pro-Iran and pro-al Qaeda forces to determine Syria's fate," said Mr. Engel, who co-sponsored the House resolution on March 21 with Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
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