With the Obama administration’s strategy for destroying ISIS very much in flux, an uneasy Congress is preparing to approve a massive spending measure that includes authority to arm and train Free Syrian Army rebels allied with the U.S. in fighting the jihadist terrorist organization.
There’s little doubt lawmakers will complete work this week on the roughly $1 trillion stopgap-spending measure to keep the government operating beyond the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1, while granting President Obama the authority to spend $500 million to train the Syrian rebels.
Yet many Democrats worry about giving Obama a blank check to escalate the conflict in Iraq and neighboring Syria, while Republicans fear Obama’s plan for “degrading and ultimately destroying” ISIS through stepped-up airstrikes and counterterrorist activities is woefully inadequate.
Now, a new report by Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim says the CIA is skeptical that Obama’s Syria strategy will work. A source told Huffpo, “The CIA has already been covertly equipping Syrian rebels at the instruction of the White House, but has come to find the fighters increasingly disorganized and radicalized as the conflict goes on, with U.S.-supplied arms winding up in the hands of more radical fighters.”
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Wednesday he will vote against authorizing money to train the Syrian rebels. He told The Washington Post, "No one’s convinced me that they can identify friend or foe in that part of the world right now.” Manchin said the danger is arms we provide to one faction may end up in the hands of our enemies. “That’s a sad scenario."
Obama has repeatedly insisted that a joint U.S.-NATO operation against ISIS will not include deployment of U.S. ground troops. He renewed that vow again today during a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. “We’re going to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” he said, adding, “I want to be clear: the American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists.”
Yet Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not rule out a future combat role for U.S. troops during congressional testimony yesterday.
“To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But I’m not there.”
Meanwhile, ISIS released a slick new propaganda video – entitled “Flames of War” – warning that any U.S. troops sent into Iraq would be met by ISIS fighters, according to the Associated Press. The 52-second video shows militants blowing up tanks, wounded U.S. soldiers and a clip of Obama saying that combat troops will not return to Iraq.
The ISIS video ends with a text overlay stating “fighting has just begun,” according to the report, and ends with the words “coming soon.”
The House is scheduled to complete debate on the major spending bill and authorization to train Syrian rebels and vote later today, with the Senate completing action on it tomorrow.
The seven-page Syrian amendment – drafted by House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) – will be voted on separately before the final vote and includes a number of provisions to allay members’ concerns. The provisions include a requirement that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel notify lawmakers at least 15 days before the rebel training begins, limiting the authority through mid-December and making clear the amendment is not a green light for sending in U.S. combat troops.
A more detailed debate on larger strategic issues and the question of whether the president needs more congressional war powers authority will have to be put off until after the Nov. 4 election; congressional leaders are eager to send members home by week’s end.
“Let’s make no mistake, we are confronting here on this issue a matter of war and peace,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) said today. “Yet in the same breath we are discussing the danger, we are preparing to shutter Congress for another seven weeks until after the election."
He added, “The president said he welcomes congressional support for this effort to show the world we are united in confrontation with this danger… But I for one believe the president actually needs specific congressional authority, whether he wants it or not, for what he himself acknowledges will be a prolonged campaign to eradicate the cancer-like ISIS. Anything short of that is an abrogation of our sworn duty to defend and uphold the Constitution.”
Freshman Rep. David Jolly (R-FL), an opponent of the amendment, said Obama and Congress need to have “a hard conversation” before the president proceeds against ISIS – “recognizing that we are a war-weary and tired nation faced again with an asymmetric threat from terrorists who have threatened our homeland.”
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