The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which just rebranded itself the Islamic State and now controls significant parts of Iraq and Syria, presents the U.S. with both a security threat and a policy dilemma. In Iraq, fighting ISIL means helping the government put down a Sunni rebellion. In Syria, fighting ISIL means helping a Sunni rebellion against the government.
The only constant here is fighting ISIL. It’s this context that best explains President Obama’s request to Congress for $500 million to arm and train Syria’s opposition. The aid may or may not be a breakthrough in the quest to end Syria’s brutal civil war, but it certainly offers the U.S. a way to fight ISIL outside the political complications of Iraq.
Obama’s request backs up his pledge to “work with Congress to ramp up support” for opposition fighters. It puts the U.S. military, rather than the Central Intelligence Agency, in charge—thus raising the profile of American involvement and inviting greater congressional oversight.
After two years of lower-level support for the opposition—including some clandestine training and arming efforts—the U.S. should be able to identify teams to trust with antiaircraft missiles to take out the Syrian aircraft that have been killing fighters and civilians. U.S. officials worry that such weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists. That risk exists, but no one is talking about passing out Stingers as if they were party favors, as the CIA did with more than 2,000 missiles in Afghanistan.
The fighting between moderate and extremist opposition groups in Syria has until now made it harder for them to take on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. At this point, however, ISIL has grown into a problem at least as large as Assad, and the moderate Sunni fighters need U.S. assistance more than ever. They are in a position to help undermine ISIL’s ambitions.
No one should be under any illusions about how challenging the situation is in Syria. As the administration made its announcement, for instance, Syria’s opposition disbanded the military command of the Free Syrian Army over corruption allegations.
That means U.S. aid will have to be delivered carefully and in a timely fashion. Congress should act quickly so funding is available on Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. This is the chance for congressional critics, who have sniped at the administration for not doing enough, to put their votes where their mouths are.
To bring Congress along, the administration will have to explain its plans in greater detail. Perhaps officials are reluctant to discuss what kind of lethal equipment the administration intends to provide. Now with Congress more involved and the higher stakes that have come with Iraq’s near collapse, that sort of reticence just won’t do.