- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The House voted Wednesday to approve President Obama’s request to open a new front in the war on terrorism, granting him permission to train and arm some Syrian rebels in the hope that they will fight Islamic State militants advancing in Syria and Iraq.

Mr. Obama repeated his vow not to let the mission escalate to the point where U.S. troops are engaged in offensive ground combat, but did little to expand on his still-developing war strategy, which will require a coalition of Muslim countries, picking and choosing from various warring Syrian rebels, and using American air power to provide support.

“America can make a decisive difference, but I want to be clear: The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” the president said while visiting troops at U.S. Central Command in Florida, which oversees military operations in the Middle East.

Wednesday’s 273-156 vote, however, signaled deep, lingering concerns on both sides of the aisle over whether the tactics Mr. Obama has laid out will achieve his goal of destroying the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.

Some feared that despite the president’s assurances, the U.S. will be drawn into another war. More hawkish Democrats and Republicans, though, worried that the U.S. isn’t doing enough and that Mr. Obama still owes Congress and Americans a comprehensive strategy. They argued that assisting the rebels should be considered only a first step.

“It is necessary, but in and of itself it is not enough. But it is necessary,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who helped lead the push for approval of the training authority.

The authority contained in the bill is limited. It enables the Pentagon to vet and then train and equip moderate Syrian forces, whom the U.S. hopes will battle the Islamic State, which has set up a self-styled caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq. The bill, however, specifically says it does not grant Mr. Obama broader authority to conduct a military campaign.

Republicans generally favored granting Mr. Obama permission to help the rebels, by a 159-71 margin. Democrats were deeply split but voted 114-85 in favor of backing their party leader.

“Syrian rebels are not loyal to our flag, and they will not do our bidding. They will pursue their own interests, and while allied today, they may be a sworn enemy tomorrow,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who voted against approval. “We have seen time after tragic time that the weapons we provide will be aimed at our own troops if that comes to pass.”

Those who backed Mr. Obama said they were swallowing a host of objections, including whether the Defense Department can weed out bad elements among the rebels; whether the Free Syrian Army will use its training and equipment on the Islamic State, or instead turn to fight the Assad government; and whether a coalition of Muslim countries will emerge.

“The proposal the House passed today is the best of a host of bad options,” said Rep. John C. Carney Jr., Delaware Democrat. “I am concerned that we may be unable to identify reliable partners to do the necessary work on the ground. I am concerned about mission creep. And I am concerned that these new authorities will put American resources on the line while still being insufficient to accomplish the task of destroying ISIS.”

Under Mr. Obama’s plans, 1,600 American troops will be on the ground in Iraq to help coordinate intelligence and logistics — though Defense Department officials say that doesn’t amount to a combat role. Other troops are conducting airstrikes, which the Pentagon concedes is combat, but says it doesn’t break the president’s promise not to restart the Iraq War, which Mr. Obama campaigned on ending.

Permission to arm and train the Syrians was attached to a stopgap spending bill that keeps the government open past Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.

That bill now goes to the Senate, where a final vote will be held Thursday.

Congress then will adjourn for two months, giving Mr. Obama a free hand to fight the war without having to worry about immediate pressure from Capitol Hill.

Beyond the questions of tactics and strategy, a growing chorus in the House and Senate says Mr. Obama should have come to Congress for permission for his entire plan, including the military advisers and airstrikes he has committed to Iraq.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday that he and others in the Obama administration would welcome input from Congress, but the White House is fully justified to act on its own under a 2001 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which allowed the Bush administration to make war against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He said White House and State Department attorneys have concluded that the Islamic State was born out of the al Qaeda organization that carried out the 2001 attacks.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers pushed back.

“I appreciate your ability as a former prosecutor and a gifted attorney to try to make the case,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman. “I will tell you that at least from the chair’s perspective, you’re going to need a new AUMF, and it will have to be more tailored.”

Mr. Kerry said, “Do it. Pass it. We’d love to have you do it.”

But Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the committee, said it’s up to Mr. Obama to present a plan for approval.

“You’re asking us,” he said, “but you’re not giving any details because you don’t have them.”

Mr. Kerry shot back: “That’s not true, Senator.”

“Well,” responded Mr. Corker, “then share them.”

Mr. Kerry said he couldn’t share the details in a public hearing but would be happy to discuss them in a classified setting.

“I’m confident there will be so many classified briefings that you’ll be tired of them,” he said.

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