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House Votes 273-156 To Arm Syrian Rebels Against Islamic State

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved President Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants, giving the administration a much-needed endorsement of its strategy to defeat the extremist group.

But though the Senate was expected to give its approval Thursday, deep personal and political misgivings of lawmakers in both parties exposed more doubt than resolve over the president’s approach.

Republicans and Democrats are skeptical that the proposal to train and arm Syrian opposition forces will work. Training will take months, and the fighters’ battlefield abilities and trustworthiness remain untested.

Some Republican hawks wanted bolder action, but many lawmakers, particularly anti-war Democrats, fear that the administration is moving toward another protracted Mideast war that could ultimately require American ground troops.

Obama reiterated Wednesday that U.S. combat forces would not be deployed, a day after his top military adviser told a Senate panel that ground troops could be necessary in certain circumstances.

Despite the 273-156 House vote by an unusually bipartisan mix of lawmakers, passage came only after several days of heated debate on Capitol Hill. A rare unity emerged from top leaders in both parties who closed ranks to back the president’s strategy, even as they acknowledged it was the best among imperfect options for a war-weary country.

“It is not pleasant. It is not easy. It’s hard,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “But it really is necessary for the House to approve this.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) expressed frustration with the president’s approach, but said that “we must support this amendment and take this first step towards a comprehensive strategy to combat these brutal terrorists.” Although the House speaker rarely votes, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-OH) backed the president and voted in favor.

The White House welcomed Wednesday’s vote. “Today’s vote is another step closer to having the authorization to train and equip vetted elements of the moderate Syrian opposition so they can defend themselves against, and ultimately push back on, ISIL forces in Syria, while creating the conditions for the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” Obama said in a statement, referring to Islamic State by a commonly used acronym. He urged the Senate to pass the bill as well.

The resolution authorizes the arming of moderate Syrian forces who oppose President Bashar Assad and does not approve Obama’s broader strategy of using airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, a Qaida offshoot that has seized large swaths of territory in the two countries and has beheaded three Westerners.

Obama has maintained he doesn’t need further authorization from Congress to bomb Islamic State forces, but he said he wanted a congressional “buy-in” for his strategy to send a message of unity to allies and enemies abroad.

The White House bet that the narrowly crafted resolution on arming Syrian rebels would be easier to pass for lawmakers reluctant to vote on such a sensitive issue during an election campaign.

But passage proved much more difficult than anticipated, spurring a last-minute flurry of White House lobbying and pressure. Both parties held extensive closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill as administration officials presented its case, with the president personally calling some leaders.

The White House initially requested $500 million for the training program, but the funding was left out of the resolution. Money will be initially available from the Pentagon’s existing accounts.

House Republicans bolstered the resolution to require 15-day advance notice to Congress before any training begins, and follow-up reports every 90 days.

The resolution was attached to a must-pass spending bill that is required to fund the government and avert another shutdown by the end of the month. The spending package also cleared the House on Wednesday by a vote of 319-108, including a provision to temporarily renew the authorization for the Export-Import Bank, which some lawmakers have tried to shut down.

Linking the Syria resolution to the funding bill made it more difficult for lawmakers to refuse, but the tactic drew scorn from those who saw it as political gamesmanship on a vote that many see as one of conscience.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV) denounced the parliamentary move, and tea party conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who voted against both measures in the House, called it “immoral” to use a budget bill to pressure members to support the military action.

Congress initially had been reluctant to vote on any authorization of the administration’s military strategy. But when polls showed public opinion supportive of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, lawmakers embraced a more active role.

Both the stopgap spending bill and the authority to arm Syrian rebels are effective only until December, all but guaranteeing another debate on Syria in the postelection lame-duck session of Congress.

Lawmakers from both parties vowed to return from the November election to force a debate — and vote — on whether the president should be able to engage in broader military action.

Although the administration maintains that the United States is conducting airstrikes under previous War Powers Resolution authority granted by Congress in 2001 and 2002, lawmakers increasingly argue that those resolutions do not cover this effort.

“What in the world are we doing?” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) who voted against the resolution. “Congress should be examining all of the solutions to this crisis, not just the military ones.”

AFP Photo

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Obama’s Request To Arm Syrians Faces Skepticism Before Congress Votes

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s request for Congress to authorize the training and equipping of Syrian rebels seemed a modest piece of the administration’s new offensive against Islamic State militants.

But it has proved to be anything but easy as skeptical lawmakers appear to have more questions than resolve to approve it.

A hoped-for Tuesday vote in the House has been pushed to later in the week as leaders struggled over the weekend to draft a resolution that could win support from a broad, bipartisan swath of lawmakers. It was expected to be released Monday.

Many members of Congress, though, now want to engage not only on the narrow request to arm the Syrian rebels but also the broader administrative strategy against the militants, also known as ISIS.

On Monday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) introduced a measure that would authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for the next 18 months — a larger question than the one the administration has asked of Congress and one that would likely be more difficult to pass Congress.

The president has claimed the authority for directing the Pentagon’s campaign of airstrikes against the militants under the broad powers granted by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in the 2002 run-up to the war in Iraq.

But lawmakers increasingly argue those decade-old authorizations must be revisited by Congress, which until recently had been content to sit on the sidelines as the administration led the offensive.

Schiff, who has long pushed for a new vote, was introducing his measure “so that the president and our Armed Forces may know that the Congress stands behind them — and that we too have done our duty,” he said.

Other measures are being drafted by key Democrats in the Senate.

That conversation could be a long one. In this Congress, the deep partisan divide that has characterized Capitol Hill further splinters between its interventionist and isolationist camps.

Leaders of both parties, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) delivered a rare display of unity last week in support of Obama’s request for at least arming the Syrians.

Boehner noted that with reluctance to put American troops on the ground, somebody has to go in to fight the militants.

And they downplayed the need for more action from Congress.

“Hopefully, we don’t have to go beyond what the president is doing now,” Pelosi said.

By midday Monday, Republican leaders were poised to release the resolution on arming the Syrian rebels, with a vote expected as soon as Wednesday.

House Republicans wanted to build on the administration’s request and, at minimum, tuck in language to provide greater congressional oversight of the operation.

The oversight was “one key thing that was missing” from the administration request, said a senior House Armed Services Committee aide.

The House resolution will include a plan for vetting the rebels that must be submitted to Congress no less than 15 days before any training begins or equipment is transferred.

“We’re not asking for something that makes this mission impossible,” said the aide.

But Republican leaders must juggle the desire of their lawmakers to beef up the administration’s request with the need to maintain a coalition with moderate Democrats to pass the measure.

A contingent of tea party Republicans and anti-war Democrats will likely oppose any military effort.

“There can’t be 535 commanders in chief,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) a former Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan, warned his colleagues during a closed door meeting last week.

Democrats have their own concerns with actions that many liberals worry resembles the war in Iraq they opposed.

“The president’s critics are demanding that he come up with a detailed plan that would guarantee the total and complete destruction of ISIS,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). “(They) ought to be willing to discuss what casualties they’re willing to accept, because we’re talking substantial casualties to achieve that goal.”

The debate is complicated this week by the need for Congress to also approve a measure to fund the government past Sept. 30 to avoid a federal shutdown.

With just one week at work before Congress is set to recess for the fall campaigns, the days ahead are expected to be long ones for lawmakers.

Tribune Washington Bureau staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Syria’s Violence Prompts Worse Humanitarian Crisis In A Century

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced either internally or externally as refugees in the worst humanitarian crisis to strike the Middle East in at least a century, according to new data released by the International Rescue Committee.

The complex civil war, which has now morphed into a three-way free-for-all among rebels, the Syrian regime, and a caliphate of Islamic extremists attacking virtually everyone, has driven at least 3 million people from Syria into neighboring countries. The movement is stressing already fragile nations such as Jordan and Lebanon, who have born the brunt of the exodus even as both deal with their own unstable internal political situations.

Turkey also has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and continues to struggle to control its own border; thousands of foreign Jihadi fighters have used Turkey to access the Syrian battlefield. They offset the tens of thousands of Syrian fleeing the fighting, leaving southern Turkey awash in desperate refugees and militants of all stripes.

In terms of world history, the IRC, considered one of the world’s most effective aid organizations, says the situation has reached a level of disaster not seen worldwide since the Rwandan genocide more than 20 years ago that saw fewer people — about 1.5 million — displaced but nearly a million killed. The casualties in the Syrian conflict have been estimated by the United Nations conservatively at over 200,000 dead since it began in early 2011.

The lack of a coordinated international effort to address such an enormous catastrophe in the volatile region makes no sense in the modern era, according to an IRC official.

“This new milestone is as unacceptable as it is tragic. This level of human suffering, anguish, and misery does not belong in the 21st century — it is a devastating new hallmark of human failure,” said IRC President David Miliband. “It should not take these numbers for the crisis to hit the headlines — we are witnessing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe for a generation in one of the least stable and most dangerous parts of the world. This crisis needs more public attention, more international financing, and crucially more political endeavor to tackle the root of the crisis: political dysfunction that has led to violence, chaos, and death.”

The situation in Lebanon, which has absorbed at least 1.2 million refugees into an already unstable population of about 4 million people — and an additional estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees that have been living in camps for decades — poses the greatest concern.
With a government widely considered the least effectual in an already unstable region, Lebanon has refused to formulate an official government plan to deal with crisis, leaving virtually all of the aid and organizational work to either outside aid groups or even to the refugees themselves, who instead of living in camps where the population can be easily accessed by aid groups — such as the enormous Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan — are scattered throughout Lebanon in small makeshift camps, private homes, or even living on the streets.

AFP Photo

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Syrian Forces Retake Damascus Suburb In Another Setback For Rebels

By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

Syrian forces regained control over a strategic suburb of the capital on Thursday as rebels under heavy bombardment said they were forced to withdraw.

The fall of Mleiha, the Damascus suburb that the rebels had controlled for nearly two years, is a major setback for the beleaguered opposition, which has seen its hold over much of the country weaken over the past year.

With Mleiha in government hands, other rebel strongholds in the Ghouta Sharqia area east of the capital are even more vulnerable to advances by military forces.

Hundreds of rebels in Mleiha were forced to pull out after coming under intense air and mortar bombardment by government forces and Hezbollah militants, said Abu Yazan, a media activist who had been in the town. Other rebel sources said opposition fighters remained in some parts of Mleiha.

“Occupying Mleiha is the beginning phase of occupying the towns inside the besieged Ghouta,” said Abdurrahman, a spokesman with the Islam Army, one of the largest rebel groups in Damascus.

“He will attack piece by piece,” Abdurrahman added, referring to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The spokesman goes by his first name only for security reasons.

The Ghouta, which has been under government siege for more than a year, was attacked last August with chemical weapons, killing around 1,400 people. The two sides in the conflict blamed each other for the assault, with the United States and other Western allies pinning it on Assad’s forces.

Mleiha is only the latest victory for the regime, which since late last year has gradually retaken territory from the opposition rebels, some through military force aided by an outmatched air power and others through truces after months of dwindling resources and starvation.

State media reported that rebels in Mleiha used it as a base to carry out attacks on civilians. The town lies next to the pro-government and mostly minority suburb of Jaramana, which has come under regular mortar attack.

The army’s general command told state media that with Mleiha now under government control, troops have tightened the noose around the Ghouta Sharqia “and established a springboard from which these terrorists can be eliminated completely.”

The government routinely describes the opposition as terrorists.

AFP Photo/Joseph Eid

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