Washington • Congress is balking at the administration's first attempt to pay for lethal aid to the Syrian rebels until the White House presents a more fully developed proposal than one they received last week from Secretary of State John Kerry, including options for what the U.S. will do next if the initial surge of arms fails to improve the rebels' standing in the civil war that's gone on for more than two years.
Lawmakers last week rejected the Obama administration's initial proposal to arm Syrian rebels, refusing to fund the plan until the White House presents options for what action the U.S. might take at the U.N. or what actions might trigger the administration to set up an area where U.S. or allied forces prohibit Syrian planes from attacking rebel positions, known as a no-fly zone.
Top lawmakers met with administration officials at the White House Wednesday to see if they could break the impasse. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was attending the meeting, which follows a classified briefing for lawmakers last week.
A White House spokeswoman declined comment.
"We want to make sure that we know what the end game is and we want to make sure it's the right strategy," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, describing the ongoing exchanges with the administration. "So we're supportive of the president's efforts to continue to put pressure on the Assad regime and to support the rebels, but we all continue to ask tough questions do we know who these rebels are and in the long run, are we backing the right group, and are any action that we taking in total concert with the allies and surrounding nations in the region, so that this doesn't ever become a U.S.-only effort."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
"It was an important conversation about Syria and possible ways forward," Boehner told reporters Wednesday. "We've got to make some decisions there's just no ifs, ands or buts about it." He gave no details of what was discussed.
Separately, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised concerns about the implications of a no-fly zone.
"My concern has been that ensuring that Syria's airplanes don't fly addresses about 10 percent of the problem in terms of the casualties that are taken in Syria," Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon. "And if we choose to conduct a no-fly zone, it's essential an act of war, and I'd like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war."
The Obama administration announced earlier this month that it would start sending weapons to Syrian opposition groups, after it found conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against opposition forces. The White House said multiple chemical attacks last year with substances including the nerve agent sarin killed up to 150 people. Britain and the United States notified the United Nations of 10 different incidents of alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, a U.N. diplomat said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the incidents have not been publicly divulged.
Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a member of the House Intelligence committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, head of the Homeland Security panel, introduced legislation late Tuesday that would block the administration from providing weapons to the rebels unless it gets congressional approval first.
Rooney said the administration has been unable to assure him that the weapons won't wind up in the hands of al-Qaida. "So what's our endgame? If the president wants to take us into Syria, he needs to come to Congress and convince us. The president needs to make a convincing case that this is in our national security interest, and he needs to lay out a clear and comprehensive mission, including an exit strategy. He hasn't done that yet," he said.
Syria's conflict began as peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It gradually became an armed conflict after Assad's regime used the army to crackdown on dissent and some opposition supporters took up weapons to fight government troops. Even the most modest international efforts to end the Syrian conflict have failed. U.N.'s special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters on Tuesday that an international peace conference proposed by Russia and the U.S. will not take place until later in the summer, partly because of opposition disarray, and the death toll is now an estimated 100,000.
The rejection of Kerry's initial plan for arming the rebels was nearly unanimous from both Democrats and Republicans on several congressional committees last week, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as a condition of discussing the confidential committee deliberations.
At one of the closed-door briefings, Kerry outlined the administration's broad strategy for Syria while a senior CIA official discussed the specifics of the agency's plan to arm and train selected rebels. One official familiar with that briefing said lawmakers were skeptical of the CIA's plans and raised numerous questions and concerns.
The CIA declined to comment.
Syrian rebels have been receiving weapons from Gulf nations like Qatar, but have been pushing for more, including more sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, but the White House worries those might end up in the hands of rebel factions loyal to al-Qaida, or could be acquired by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters that have joined Assad's forces.
Officials have said that the CIA would largely coordinate the delivery of arms to the rebels.
The plan involves providing arms to rebels at existing foreign training camps in Jordan and Turkey, where CIA and special operations officers have already been training rebels on the use of sophisticated radios and other nonlethal aid provided by the U.S. The Americans have also helped train the rebels in antiaircraft and other light weaponry provided by Gulf countries.
The White House needs congressional approval from several committees to fund the plan because it involves taking money that is currently being spent on other U.S. intelligence activities, the officials said. The House Intelligence Committee rejected the idea unanimously, with both Republicans and Democrats asking for more details.
The officials would not describe the amount of money involved, saying it was part of a classified budget, and they also did not want to give the Syrian regime a way to guess the size or scope of the U.S. lethal assistance.