President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve $500 million to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as the administration seeks to rein in Sunni extremists whose fight has spilled across the Syrian border into Iraq.
“Appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition,” would receive the aid through the U.S. Defense Department, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
The money, for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, would be part of Obama’s $1.5 billion plan for a Regional Stabilization Initiative that also would aid neighboring countries Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
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It was made public yesterday as part of a broader $65.8 billion Overseas Contingency Operations request that the Obama administration submitted to lawmakers to fund wartime spending. It’s $19.5 billion less than the placeholder estimate the administration had offered before Obama decided last month how quickly to draw down U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan.
Republican Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, who heads the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement e-mailed before Obama’s request that “Congress is not a rubber stamp,” and the funding request would be examined closely.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Obama for not moving more quickly to arm the Syrian rebels fighting Assad. The administration has expressed concern that some aid would fall into the hands of extremists such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, the Sunni militant group that has seized a swath of Iraq.
Perhaps the most effective weapon the U.S. could provide the Syrian rebels is Stinger missiles that can shoot down aircraft, said Michael Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
“It would have the same kind of dramatic impact it did on the Afghan rebels” who fought the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, said Pillsbury, who as a Pentagon official in President Ronald Reagan’s administration was responsible for military support of covert action.
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Reagan’s decision to send hundreds of Stingers to the Afghan Mujahideen in 1986 was the turning point of a decade-long war that finally drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, said Pillsbury, who was a leading advocate for providing the weapons. “Even the Soviets told us that later,” he said.
The Stingers provided a psychological boost to the rebels, made a political impact in Moscow, and forced Soviet aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, preventing accurate bombing missions, Pillsbury said.
The proposal Obama sent Congress also includes funds for the noncombat transition in Afghanistan and the creation of two programs he has proposed in recent weeks -- a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund and a $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative aimed at responding to Russia’s moves in Ukraine.
The regional stabilization fund, including the aid to the moderate opposition, “would help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement,” Hayden said.
“While we continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria, this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL who find safe haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels,” Hayden said.
As the U.S. draws down to 9,800 service members in Afghanistan by early 2015, the new budget request also will provide funding for 336,306 members of the Afghan security forces, the Pentagon’s joint service office that counters roadside bombs and coalition support, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said in an interview this week.
The new war request also would provide billions of dollars for the restoration of equipment in transit or still in Afghanistan.
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