- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

Congress gave final permission Thursday for the Pentagon to train and arm Syrian rebels, approving part of President Obama’s war plans before fleeing Washington for a two-month break, leaving the White House free rein to fight a war against the Islamic State on its own terms.

Minutes after senators voted, Mr. Obama announced that France had agreed to lend firepower to the international coalition he is assembling to confront the terrorists — though the French combat role will be limited to assisting with airstrikes in Iraq.

The administration, meanwhile, signaled that it is poised to expand its own air campaign into Syria, opening a new geographic front in the war on terrorism. The White House also said U.S. troops in Iraq, while not on a combat mission, will be allowed to return fire if militants shoot at them.

“These terrorists thought they could fight us, or intimidate us, or cause us to shrink from the world, but today they’re learning the same hard lesson of petty tyrants and terrorists who’ve gone before,” Mr. Obama said in an evening address from the White House. “As Americans, we do not give in to fear, and when you harm our citizens, when you threaten the United States, when you threaten our allies, it doesn’t divide us, it unites us.”

The tough talk capped a remarkable set of reversals for Mr. Obama, who a year ago said the terrorist threat was receding and called for Congress to repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations that gave President George W. Bush the power to go after al Qaeda and to oust Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s dictator.

Now, Mr. Obama said that 2001 authorization for the use of military force, passed in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, gives him permission to strike in Syria against the Islamic State, which he now argues should be considered part of al Qaeda.

SEE ALSO: Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay lukewarm on arming Syrians, dubious Obama is up to the task

By the time the administration’s war plans are in place, 1,600 U.S. troops will be on the ground in Iraq, helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces with intelligence and logistics as they seek to recapture the large chunks of territory taken by the Islamic State this year.

Mr. Obama again insisted that those U.S. troops won’t have a combat mission, but his spokesman said earlier Thursday that they will be expected to return fire if attacked by Islamic State militants.

Iraq is a very dangerous place, and U.S. military personnel will have the equipment to defend themselves,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “Certainly the commander in chief would expect that the American troops do what is necessary to defend themselves.”

The former chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said announcing that the U.S. won’t engage in combat missions in Iraq sends the wrong signal to the enemy and could hurt U.S. efforts to build an international coalition.

“We have allies out there,” retired Marine Gen. James Mattis told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “It’s a matter of whether we will lead and put ourselves on the line alongside them.”

He also said that placing deadlines on Mr. Obama’s ability to operate could discourage the coalition.

Congress did place such a deadline on the aid to Syrian rebels, giving the president three months to begin to vet, train and equip members of the Free Syrian Army, with the hope that they will open a new ground front against the Islamic State within Syria.

After three months, Congress has said, it will take stock of how the effort is progressing.

Senators voted 78-22 on Thursday to approve the training plan as part of an end-of-year stopgap funding bill. The House approved the plan Wednesday.

“If we do not confront and defeat ISIL now, we will have to do so later. And it will take a lot longer, it will be much costlier and even more painful,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.

The Florida Republican said he voted in favor of the president’s request despite doubts about the chance of success.

“There is no guarantee of success. There is none. But there is a guarantee of failure if we do not even try,” he said. “And try we must. For one fundamental reason — if we fail to approve this, the nations of that region will say that America’s not truly engaged, that Americans are willing to talk about this but are not willing to do anything about it.”

Opponents were haunted by the memory of the recently ended war in Iraq, authorized by that 2002 vote, and said weighing in on the side of some Syrian rebels is dangerous.

“I fear very much that supporting questionable groups in Syria who will be outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the Assad regime could open the door to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats.

In a strong bipartisan statement of support, 45 Democrats and 33 Republicans voted to back Mr. Obama.

No matter which way they voted, many members of Congress said it was just a first step in what they hope will be a full back-and-forth between Mr. Obama and Capitol Hill, as all sides try to sound out the best policy for confronting the ascendant terrorist threat.

Some lawmakers have asked for Mr. Obama to come to Congress with another authorization for the use of military force, replacing the 2001 agreement that authorized attacks on al Qaeda.

Administration officials insist that document is good enough for now, and if Congress wants to weigh in, it will have to write a bill itself.

“We welcome updating the AUMF. We’re not trying to avoid that,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the House. “But we are convinced beyond any doubt that we do have the legal authority to proceed now. Would it be better to have something in 2014 that speaks to this particular situation rather than a 2001 AUMF? Sure. But that’s not where we’re starting from and we need to get moving.”

Mr. Kerry and other officials are trying to build an international coalition to confront the Islamic State. He said more than 50 nations have pledged some form of support.

The secretary of state, testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declined to lay out many specifics of those commitments. He said the U.S. right now is trying to match capabilities with needs.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to host training for the Syrian rebels, and the Pentagon has said the military expects to train 5,000 in the first eight months to a year. The Islamic State is estimated to have as many as 31,000 fighters, two-thirds of them in Syria.

At the White House, Mr. Obama continued to face questions over his plans and how he has run the war so far.

Mr. Earnest denied a report that Mr. Obama will personally authorize each bombing run by U.S. aircraft in Syria.

“Not true,” Mr. Earnest said. “What the president has done in Iraq, and what he will do in Syria is lay out clear guidelines for what the president envisions for our military planning, and he will authorize or, you know, put in place guidelines that the military can use to carry out these operations.”

Of the more than 160 airstrikes to date in Iraq, he said, Mr. Obama “did not sign off on each of those 160 airstrikes individually.”

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