WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee declined Thursday to block a $500 million request from the Obama administration to provide military training and equipment to Syrian rebels.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., sought to strip the funds from an annual spending bill for the Department of Defense, saying he was concerned that the resources would end up in the hands of extremists opposed to the United States.
“Syria is a kaleidoscope of every changing circumstances and loyalties,” he said.
While the administration has pledged that the funds would only go to opposition forces committed to seeing Syria become a true democracy free of sectarian violence and revenge killings, Pryor said there is no way to verify those admirable sentiments.
“I’m concerned they will be empty promises,” Pryor said. “You can’t find any examples in the Middle East in recent years where this has actually happened. There is just too much of a chance that those weapons will land in the hands of extremists, just like in Iraq.”
Pryor’s amendment failed, 21-9, but provoked a lively debate among committee members. Those who spoke against blocking the request recognized Pryor’s concern is valid but argued that doing nothing posed a far greater threat to U.S. security.
“Whatever chance we have of turning Syria around, we better take it, because the only thing I can promise you about any outcome in Syria is the problems are headed our way very quickly,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Without U.S. military assistance, Graham said he fears a growing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Iranian victory in Syria and an emboldened Russia.
“I can’t promise this (assistance) will help turn things around but at least it is an effort,” he said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed that the crisis in Syria represents a growing threat to U.S. national security but said Congress should not approve funding until the Obama administration articulates a clear plan.
“This is putting the cart before the horse,” she said.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., spoke in favor of providing the funds saying the administration is “acutely sensitive” to the issue of vetting the opposition forces as well as the nature of weapons it would provide them and that given the threat from ISIS it makes sense to support those who will help “undermine and degrade” the group.
Sen. Dan Coates, R-Ind., said the committee faced a tough call but in the end it would be better to provide the administration the option and then continue to encourage them to better articulate the plan.
“This (program) may be a long shot but it may be the only shot we have” in Syria, Coates said.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., supported Pryor’s amendment but did not participate in the debate.
In a statement released after the committee vote, Boozman expressed concerns that President Obama had no strategy for Syria and no clear understanding of who are friends and enemies are there.
“Providing these funds without a clear plan, which has been lacking since the beginning of the conflict, has the potential to escalate the situation in an already unstable region,” Boozman said.