Wary lawmakers ready to OK arms for Syrian rebels

Chuck Hagel, Martin Dempsey
Members of the anti-war activist group CodePink interrupt a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. It is the first in a series of high-profile hearings that will measure congressional support for President Barack Obama's strategy to combat Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Wary House lawmakers are on track to give President Barack Obama authority to order U.S. military training and arms for moderate rebels confronting the growing danger of Islamic State militants in Syria.

Obama was likely to get his wish in a vote Wednesday despite worries from hawks in both parties that his response was insufficient to battle terrorists who have overrun wide swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“If we want to open a front against (Islamic State forces) in Syria, we have to open a front. And I don’t see any other way to do it than try to build an alternative force,” said Rep. Adam Smith, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “No one’s excited about it but, you know, it’s the best from a series of bad options.”

Republican leaders have swung behind Obama’s request, though they’re not pressuring the party’s rank and file to follow suit. Top Democrats promised the measure would pass.

“I think there’s a lot more that we need to be doing, but there’s no reason for us not to do what the president asked us to do,” House Speaker John Boehner said. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California also supports the mission, as does Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The measure would send U.S. military trainers to Saudi Arabia to arm and train Syrian opponents of Islamic State militants, who have routed U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces repeatedly and threaten the viability of the government in Baghdad.

Obama has also vowed to use air power to strike Islamic State militants but has maintained repeatedly that American forces will not have a renewed ground combat mission in Iraq in this new phase of a long battle against terrorists.

“I wish that we were doing more, but this is the only option that we’ve been given,” Republican iRep. Chris Stewart said. “And we must at least do this.”

But in a Senate hearing, the nation’s top military officer said U.S. ground troops may be needed to battle the Islamic State group in the Middle East if Obama’s strategy fails.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if Obama’s current approach isn’t enough to prevail, he might “go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces.”

That drew a prompt, polite rebuttal from the White House. Obama “will not deploy ground troops in a combat role into Iraq or Syria,” spokesman Josh Earnest said.

After the hearing, Dempsey told reporters traveling with him to Paris that about half of Iraq’s army is incapable of partnering effectively with the U.S. to roll back the Islamic State group’s territorial gains in western and northern Iraq, and the other half needs to be partially rebuilt with U.S. training and additional equipment.

The new authority for Obama’s plan would be added to a spending bill that’s needed to keep the government running into December and avoid a politically damaging repeat of last year’s partial shutdown of government agencies.

The underlying spending bill would also:

  • Renew the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which helps finance foreign purchases of U.S. exports, through next June. That postpones a battle between ultraconservative tea party forces opposing the bank and more establishment Republicans who support it.
  • Provide $88 million for the government’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A much larger, $560 million request is pending. It would send troops and detection teams, and build infrastructure such as a headquarters and new labs in Africa.

Concerns that Islamic State militants will target the United States with terrorist strikes are likely to be addressed Wednesday at a House hearing featuring Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI Director James Comey.

In committee hearings and the House floor debate, lawmakers in both parties spoke of fear that the United States would be unable to properly identify as many as 5,000 Syrian rebels who could be trusted to carry out Obama’s mission in a region where religious and tribal loyalties frequently collide.

“We must … ask ourselves if we can truly ‘vet’ these rebel groups beyond their known affiliations,” said Democratic Rep. Peter Visclosky, “and ensure we are not arming the next extremist threat to the region and the world.”

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