Why the U.S. Congress is reluctant on Syria

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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If you have been wondering where are the weapons and ammunition shipments that U.S. President Barack Obama had promised Syria’s rebels last month, the Congress has inadvertently answered this week, derailing any military aid to the opposition. The move has little to nothing to do with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and more with the nature of the fractured and infiltrated opposition, the state of minorities, and the security of Israel.

Shipments and any military aid planned to be sent to by the Pentagon and the CIA to the opposition, has been blocked by the House and Senate intelligence committees after a vote behind closed doors, imposing funding restrictions on the defense department and the intelligence to halt the efforts for the time being.

Sources on the Hill tell Al Arabiya that members of key committees want “clear details” from the White House on who is receiving the aid, and what is the long-term strategy, given that the weapons are unlikely to lead to the toppling of the regime.

The rise of extremism and prominence of groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda within the opposition, as well as Israel’s security, drive the Congress’ hesitation on the issue.

Joyce Karam

Sources pointed to lack of clarity from Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA officials in their briefings with the intelligence committee members. Rather, Kerry stuck to the talking points of the administration, mainly the need to arm to change the balance on the ground after the U.S. confirming Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Even a recent visit by the head of the House intelligence committee Mike Rogers to Jordan was not enough to provide answers on the key groups receiving the weaponry and the endgame. While Congress cannot permanently block the aid, their tacit approval is required to grant the administration some political immunity.

The rise of extremism and prominence of groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda such as Jabhat Nusra within the opposition, as well as Israel’s security, drive the Congress’ hesitation on the issue.

Perhaps the statements of Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen sum up best the opposition on Capitol Hill to arming, which seem to have to do with everything else other than Assad. Ros Lehtinen - herself one of the staunchest critics of the Assad regime, introducing the Syria accountability act in 2003, and signing off on most sanctions against the Syrian government - has been a vocal opponent to sending arms to the rebels. Lehtinen cited “questions about who the rebels are and with whom they will swear allegiance” as a concern along with the risk that “providing lethal aid that could be used against our allies, such as Israel, or the United States in a post-Assad era.”

Tea Party and Minorities

Ironically, the leading voices opposing a bigger U.S. role in Syria come from the base of the Republican party, the same one that had authorized two wars during the George W. Bush Presidency. Times have changed however, and the Republican base has been dominated by the Tea Party movement, which is more isolationist in interpreting the U.S. role in the region, and has been attracting some Islamophobic figures such as Pamela Geller.

In a rally for the Tea Party in Washington last month, Glenn Beck rebuked Obama’s announcement to arm, saying that “those people who we are choosing to arm are so far down on the scale of decency”, wondering if Washington will be arming those who “were actually eating their enemies on the battlefield.” The reference is to the infamous video showing a rebel eating the heart of a Syrian soldier. Even Sarah Palin, the former Vice Presidential candidate who is affiliated with the Tea party suggested that “Allah should sort it out” and the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict.

In Congress, Republican members who sponsored a bipartisan bill to block any intervention are from the Tea Party caucus, mainly Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee as well as Congressman Ted Cruz on the House side. While centrists in both parties such as Senators John McCain, Carl Levin and Bob Crocker have supported the administration efforts. The prominent Senate on Foreign relations committee voted 17-4 in favor of arming, but that is no guarantee for majority support in the whole chamber.

The status of minorities is among the Congress priorities in addressing Syria and the Middle East in general. Increasing hate crimes against Christians following the Arab spring has been repeatedly brought up in hearings and meetings between U.S. officials and Congress members. The recent killing of a Catholic monk in Northern Syria has highlighted these fears and increased the risks of a U.S. involvement. Added to that is the shape of Syria’s political opposition, and its failure for two years to build minority support on the ground inside Syria, and rein in groups such as Al-Nusra and control the flow of foreign fighters.

Without the Obama administration offering Congress a detailed roadmap about arming, and unless the opposition with new members such as Michel Kilo expand outreach and offer assurances to Syria’s minorities, the U.S. efforts to arm might remain futile, and Syria’s protracted conflict will continue its trajectory towards more extremism and bloodshed.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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