Congress to weigh legislation to arm Syrian rebel fighters

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel is expected to introduce legislation Monday to arm the Syrian rebels.

It's the strongest signal yet that lawmakers are running out of patience with the administration's muted response to a conflict that has left more than 70,000 people dead.

The bill, from Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), calls on the Obama administration to provide up to $150 million in lethal and non-lethal security assistance to “appropriately vetted” groups seeking to overthrow Bashar Assad's regime. 

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The 16-page “Free Syria Act of 2013” is being released ahead of House and Senate hearings this week marking the second anniversary of the uprising. It also comes just before President Obama's trip to Israel, where the Syrian conflict will be high on the agenda. 

The White House has authorized $385 million in humanitarian aid for Syria and $114 million in direct aid to the rebels, including communications gear as well as food and medicine. 

Obama has balked, however, at arming the rebels, despite the recommendations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus during his first term. He says his concern is that weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist groups fighting in the country.

Engel's bill seeks to mitigate those concerns by banning the transfer of anti-aircraft defense systems absent a “vital national security interest” and requiring the president to certify that any military assistance “will not pose a threat to a neighboring country or disrupt regional stability.” It requires the president to notify Congress 15 days before making lethal aid available.

“The bloody tragedy in Syria continues, with no end in sight,” Engel wrote in a letter to his colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee. 

“It is time for us to develop a comprehensive approach to stopping the carnage. That means not just more humanitarian aid, and assistance for the Syrian Opposition Coalition — but also the strongest possible support for responsible elements of the armed opposition, including carefully calibrated training and equipment, both lethal and nonlethal.

“It is past time to stop the madness in Syria.”

Engel's proposal faces an uphill battle in Congress, where both parties are divided over the wisdom of sending more arms to Syria. 

Hawkish senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have long called for arming the opposition. But their counterparts in the House have been more circumspect, with Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and former Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) raising doubts. 

Ros-Lehtinen's successor, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), told The Hill that his panel would consider Engel's bill but that he would hold off on weighing in until after hearing from administration officials and experts.

Engel counters that Syria is already awash in violence and weapons — and that U.S.-friendly groups are losing.

“If we do not act,” he writes to his colleagues, “we risk not only allowing this stalemate to continue, but also losing the possibility of influencing a post-Assad regime.”

The legislative push comes as U.S. allies are growing increasingly worried that anti-Western groups are gaining the upper hand in the drawn-out conflict.

America's Middle Eastern allies have said Obama should do more, and France and Britain over the past week have begun to call for an end to the European Union's embargo on arms transfers to Syria when it expires in May. 

“France must first convince its European partners," French President François Hollande told reporters last week. "But we cannot let a people be massacred like this.”

Engel's bill restricts the aid only to those groups that are committed to defeating Assad, establishing a “democratic, pluralistic, and peaceful Syria” and securing the country's chemical weapons stockpile. And it bans any aid to groups designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, a nod to the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front that has emerged as the uprising's most effective military force. 

The legislation also calls for the creation of a $300 million program to dismantle Syria's chemical and biological weapons. And it encourages efforts to help Syria transition to a democratic state after the fall of Assad, while making $250 million available for humanitarian assistance and $5 million for U.S. broadcasting into Syria.

The bill already has the support of the pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“One can only hope,” senior fellow John Hannah said in a statement to be released Monday, “that Representative Engel’s outstanding leadership might finally spur the administration as well as Congress to realize that, as difficult as the situation in Syria has become, doing nothing poses the greatest risks of all to the interests of the United States and its allies by surrendering the fate of this vital region to Assad’s killing machine, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and the black flag of Al Qaeda.”

This story was updated at 4:08 p.m.