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US Congress Authorizes Training of Moderate Syrian Rebels

  • Michael Bowman

The U.S. Senate has voted 73 to 22 to authorize equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels to battle Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS and ISIL. The measure passed the House of Representatives Wednesday and constitutes the only authorization Congress is likely to approve ahead of U.S. midterm elections in November.

In a moment of rare bipartisanship, a politically-polarized Senate approved one component of President Barack Obama’s plan to defeat the Islamic State, which has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said Congress should vote on a broad authorization, but for now, approving action in Syria is a step forward.

“When it comes to Syria, and that is where the head of the ISIS snake is, if you are going to kill the snake, you have to go to where the head is and chop it off," said Nelson.

The measure was attached to a spending bill that will keep the U.S. government funded into December. But even among senators who voted yes, many have reservations about President Obama’s plan, Congress’ reaction to it, or both. Among them is Republican Senator John McCain.

“The administration says U.S. forces will not have a combat role," said McCain. "Why does the president insist on continuing to tell the enemy what he will not do? Why does the president keep telling the people that are slaughtering thousands, ‘Don’t worry, we will not commit ground troops'?”

All week long, top administration officials testified on Capitol Hill about the president’s plan, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who explained Obama’s rationale for ruling out U.S. ground troops in combat in Iraq and Syria.

“From the last decade, we know that the sustainable strategy is not U.S. ground forces. It is enabling local forces to do what they have to do for themselves and for their country," said Kerry.

Just as in the House, Senate backing for training moderate Syrian forces was not unanimous. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders noted that America has its own needs at home.

“ISIS is not the only major problem facing our country. There are crises here at home we have ignored too long. Real unemployment today is 12 percent. Youth unemployment is 20 percent," said Sanders.

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Rand Paul argued that U.S. intervention in the Middle East is part of the problem, not the solution.

“From [Saddam] Hussein to [Bashar al-] Assad to [Muammar] Gadhafi, it is the same history. Intervention topples the secular dictator. Chaos ensues and radical jihadists emerge. The pattern has been repeated time and time again. And yet what we have here is a failure to understand, a failure to reflect on the outcome of our involvement in Arab civil wars," said Paul.

Administration officials say that while President Obama does not need Congress’s permission to battle the Islamic State, a broad authorization for military action would be welcome. The threat Sunni radicals pose to the United States - and the administration’s response to it - are likely to surface as campaign issues in congressional races, and a topic of debate when lawmakers reconvene after the November elections.

U.S. President Barack Obama says the congressional approval of his plan for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels shows the world that Americans are united in combating the Islamic State militant group.

Obama said Americans don't "give in to fear," but rather pull together and stand together.

The president's remarks Thursday came shortly after the Senate voted 78 to 22 in favor of the bill. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had approved the legislation Wednesday.

Obama also said "more than 40 countries, including Arab nations," have agreed to join the coalition against the terrorist group.

The president praised an earlier announcement by French President Francois Hollande that his country is ready to launch airstrikes against the militants inside Iraq, saying that "France is a strong partner in our efforts against terrorism." France rejected extending the aerial bombardment to Syria.

The United States already has launched more than 170 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The strikes in Syria are expected to start within days.

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