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US Senate gives Obama authority to arm ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria
(Russia Today – 19/9/2014) – The Senate has passed a bill authorizing President Barack Obama to begin arming “moderate” rebels in Syria as part of a plan to step up the US military campaign against Islamic State militants.
The bill, which easily passed Thursday by a vote of 78-22, is headed to Obama’s desk for his signature.
It allocates $500 million not only to the arming and training of Syrian rebels, but also to the expansion of US military action in Iraq.
Included in the bill is also the extension of US government funding until December 11.
Speaking shortly after Congress approved his plan, Obama welcomed the bipartisan vote.
“The House and the Senate have now voted to support a key element of our strategy,” he said. “We are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together.”
“When you harm our citizens, when you threaten the United States – it doesn’t divide us, it unites us,” Obama added.
He also reiterated once again that “American forces deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.” This pledge has been questioned over the last few days, particularly when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he’d go back to the president and ask for ground troops if the situation in Iraq worsens.
Although the bill passed with majority support from both Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern over the idea that Obama can now enter the conflict in Syria without Congress updating its previous Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Some lawmakers believe that without such approval, the use of force against the Islamic State could be unconstitutional.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that even though Congress has granted Obama the authority to arm and train Syrian rebels, lawmakers need to begin considering the passage of a new war authorization.
“We have a special responsibility given to us by the Constitution that says the American people declare war, not the president,” Durbin said, as quoted by the Huffington Post. “So we will come back and start the debate on what’s known as [an AUMF], a modern version…It’s a debate that’s long overdue.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted against the proposal, criticized it for potentially arming the same rebels that are fighting alongside Islamic State militants in the Syrian civil war against Bashar Assad. He said he would vote for a new war authorization, but slammed “the wrong way” in which Congress was currently approving such a program.
“It’s not that I’m against all intervention, I do see [the Islamic State] as a threat to us – but I see our previous policy as having made it worse,” said Paul, according to the Guardian. “There are valid reasons for war. They should be few and far between…They should not be [hidden] in the pages of a 1,000-page bill and shuffled under the rug.”
The language concerning Syrian rebels was also tucked into a larger continuing resolution that funds the government until December 11, avoiding – for now – the kind of government shutdown that plagued Washington last year.
American officials have pointed to Syrian rebels as a potential ally in the war against the Islamic State, though reports last week stated that moderate rebel groups have apparently struck a deal with militants to not fight each other and focus on toppling Assad’s government. Concerns have also been raised over the possibility that moderate rebels, viewing Assad as their main enemy and not the Islamic State, could turn over US weapons to militants fighting Americans.
The moderate rebels who signed the deal include four distinct groups, including the US-backed Syria Revolutionary Front, reported Charles Lister, an analyst at the Brookings Institute. The SRF – a part of the Free Syrian Army – was considered moderate enough to merit the West’s support.
Obama insists ground troops will not join ISIS fight, US military less sure
US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to insist that American ground troops will not be involved in the fight against Islamic State militants – a pledge that has been called into question by US Army generals.
The debate over the use of ground troops comes as the House of Representatives voted to authorize the arming and training of Syrian rebels. The move is said to be aimed at fighting Islamic State extremists in the country.
Speaking to American service members on Wednesday, President Obama once again stated he will not authorize the use of ground forces in Iraq, and that even those already in the country will not have combat responsibilities.
“I want to be clear: The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and won’t have a combat mission,” he said, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal. “As your commander in chief, I won’t commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”
The sentiments were echoed by Kerry during a Wednesday hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“US ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict,” he said while testifying. “Instead, they will support Iraq forces on the ground as they fight for their country.”
However, those apparently clear assertions are notably different from comments made by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified before the Senate on Tuesday.
Dempsey said that should Obama’s current strategy not yield the desired results, he would recommend deploying American troops on the ground.
He also noted that the president has said to “come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”
Dempsey agreed with Obama’s judgment that ground troops are unnecessary. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the US, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of US military ground forces,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gen. Ray Odierno – who was one of the lead architects of the so-called troop “surge” in Iraq circa 2007 – said on Wednesday that to defeat the Islamic State, ground troops will be necessary. He did not, however, specify whether US troops will be needed, The New York Times reported.
“You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out,” he said, referring to the hardline militants. The airstrikes, though they have halted the group’s advances, “will not be the end all and be all solution in Iraq,” he added.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – who served during the terms of former President George W. Bush as well as Obama – went even further (huffingtonpost), saying that without US combat troops in action, the American coalition against the extremist group will not be successful.
“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Gates told CBS This Morning. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”
The comments – from Odierno and Gates, as well as Obama and Kerry – were all made in the hours before the House voted on an amendment to arm Syrian rebels. The proposal passed easily by a vote of 273-156, though more Democrats (85) voted against the measure than Republicans (71).
Its passage comes as the idea has gained some notable critics in the Senate, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). During Wednesday’s hearing, McCain raised concern over the idea that Syrian rebels who consider the government of Bashar Assad their primary enemy will turn around and agree to fight Islamic State militants first – especially if they are pounded by Assad from the air. McCain suggested “neutralizing” Assad’s air capabilities and asked Kerry if he sees the opposition as “viable.”
The Syrian opposition is “viable enough” to survive in “difficult circumstances,” Kerry said, before noting that “they still have some distance to go.”
John Kerry accuses Syria of chlorine gas attacks
The US claims Syrian President Bashar Assad has broken the chemical weapons treaty he agreed to earlier this year, by launching chlorine gas attacks in Syrian villages. It comes as the Senate officially approved a plan to arm and train Syrian rebels.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday accused Assad of breaching the terms of the global pact on chemical weapons, by unleashing chlorine gas via barrel bomb attacks earlier this year.
“We believe there is evidence of [President Bashar] Assad’s use of chlorine, which when you use it – despite it not being on the list – it is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Kerry told the US House of Representatives. “He’s in violation of the convention.”
Kerry went on to add that Washington is studying ways to hold Assad to account.
The US official was not alone in what appeared to be a new wave of Western pressure on Assad’s government, which was previously accused of perpetrating deadly chemical attacks in March 2013 near Aleppo and in August 2013 in Ghouta.
A former British army officer who led The Telegraph’s independent investigation into the alleged chlorine gas attacks said Kerry’s comments showed that war crimes were continuing to take place in Syria.
“Five months after we proved that Assad had the US red line that chemical weapons must not be used, Secretary Kerry has now stated that Assad has broken international law,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said. “Since then there have been multiple other incidents including another attack on Kfar Zita that killed one person just a few days ago. Surely there must be action to stop this now.”
Earlier this month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the world’s chemical watchdog – confirmed the “systematic” use of chlorine as a weapon in war-torn Syria.
Meanwhile, the US Congress has given its final approval of a plan to arm and train select “moderate” Syrian rebels who are trying to both overthrow Assad and defeat Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) militants.
The Senate, controlled by President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, easily passed the measure late Thursday by a bipartisan vote of 78-22. The US will now spend $500 million to arm and train the anti-government militants, as well as to expand its military action in Iraq.
Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande said his country is ready to launch airstrikes against ISIS militants inside Iraq. However, Hollande rejected extending the aerial bombardment to Syria.
The US Senate’s approval of arming the Syrian rebels comes despite concerns by some Democrats that the US is involving itself in another Middle East war – as well as some Republicans who say the effort will not do enough to defeat the ISIS.
Duncan Hunter, a Republican representative from California and a former marine who served in Fallujah, said: “Army Islamists to fight other Islamists is not a winning strategy. I don’t believe the weapons and tactics that we bestow to the Islamists will only be used against America’s enemies.”
However, Obama praised the House vote, saying the arming and training of rebels is a key part of his comprehensive plan to defeat the extremists.
Since the start of the bloody uprising in Syria that began in March 2011, Assad’s government and the rebels have traded accusations of using chemical agents, including chlorine.
In April 2013, Israel – an old foe of its northern Arab neighbor – was the first to charge Syria with using chemical weapons against areas held by rebels in the ongoing civil war.
Western powers soon echoed the charge and Washington threatened Damascus with airstrikes.
A series of initiatives by Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to prevent US airstrikes and led to Assad’s decision to give up the government’s chemical arsenal.
Damascus promised to hand over all its chemical arms, and tons of chemical agents have been destroyed by international monitors.
Syria did not have to declare its stockpile of chlorine under the disarmament deal. Chlorine is a weak toxic agent that can be considered a chemical weapon if used in battle, but the material is widely used for commercial and domestic purposes.
International diplomats told Reuters this week that Syria had revealed a previously undeclared research and development facility and a laboratory to produce ricin. Those disclosures appeared to support Western allegations in recent months that the Assad regime had not been fully transparent in detailing its chemical weapons program.
CrossTalk: Washington’s Jihad
Is the West still seeking regime change in Syria amid the growing threat of the Islamic State? Is the US ready to put domestic politics aside to team up with Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah to defeat the IS? What is America’s ultimate plan in trying to intervene in both Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars? CrossTalking with Flynt Leverett, Michael Maloof, and Joshua Landis.