- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2013

There’s a growing sense in Congress that the U.S. should take more steps to arm Syrian rebels in their battle against the regime of President Bashar Assad, regardless of what decision President Obama reaches on whether to conduct military strikes against Damascus.

Fresh from a trip to the Syria-Jordan border, Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a combat veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan, said this week that he’s been assured by both American intelligence and by the king of Jordan that it is possible to make sure military aid doesn’t reach the hands of Islamic extremists in the anti-government forces — a key concern that has complicated efforts to arm rebels.

“If America is to have any immediate role in the removal of Assad, training and arming the opposition should be the extent of U.S. involvement, which is sufficient to show America’s solidarity with friends in the region,” Mr. Hunter said.

Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was on the trip and he reached a similar conclusion, saying aiding some elements of the Syrian rebellion could counteract extremists in case Mr. Assad is ousted.

“We should be under no illusion that such aid will significantly influence the outcome of the struggle against Assad. But the Free Syrian Army exists and we must be better positioned to combat extremism. They can help us in the future, but only if we help them first,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Obama is searching for options as he tries to respond to what the administration believes was the Assad regime’s use of deadly chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb last week.

Powerful photos and videos have boosted the pressure to act, but analysts say the options are limited. The Pentagon has argued that creating a no-fly zone to limit the government’s use of air power would not be a decisive blow, and could draw the U.S. into a deeper war, while other analysts have questioned whether the U.S. has squandered a chance for surgical strikes to take out chemical weapons facilities.

Members of Congress are divided over what action to take and what level of approval Mr. Obama must seek from Capitol Hill.

But the option of arming the rebels, which the administration has resisted, appears to be growing in popularity. It’s a solution that involves U.S. money and intelligence work, but not a deployment of American troops.

“The use of limited stand-off strikes, even those powerful enough to significantly degrade the regime’s military capacity, are no substitute for training and equipping the moderate opposition in Syria,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The choice in Syria should not be between the Assad regime and radical Islamists,” Mr. Engel said. “Rather, we must do all we can to strengthen those who support the goal of a stable, pluralist post-Assad Syria.”

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