Sen. Menendez presses to arm rebels as Syria pulls US toward conflict

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced legislation on Monday that would provide arms to vetted opposition groups.

Critics of the Obama administration’s approach to Syria have warned that the situation could spiral further out of control if the United States doesn’t intervene.

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The Israeli airstrikes in Syria over the weekend have sparked new fears the Syrian civil war is threatening stability in the region, a development that could increase the odds the U.S. will be pulled into the conflict.

The White House said Monday that Israel had a right to act in response to concerns over weapons transfers to Hezbollah, as it defended President Obama’s more cautious approach to taking military action.

The Israeli strikes have prompted new questions about Obama’s “red line” warning to Syria, with some lawmakers criticizing the president’s inaction after the administration said it had evidence chemical weapons were used.


White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Obama deliberately signaled to Syria that it would cross a line by using chemical weapons, and could provoke a U.S. response.

But Carney said Obama never laid out specific actions that might be taken in response to Syria crossing that “red line.”

“What he never did — it would be simplistic to do so — was say, ‘If X happens, Y will happen,’ ” Carney said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

“He never said what reaction he would take at a policy level to the proved crossing of the red line in Syria.”

Syria expressed outrage over the apparent Israeli attacks that, according to a report yesterday by the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed 42 soldiers at military sites. 

According to media reports, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government could be readying retaliatory missile attacks in case of another strike. 

The Obama administration has said it’s now reconsidering if it should provide arms to vetted Syrian rebel groups. The White House nixed a plan to do so last year from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus.

 A growing number of lawmakers are calling for the administration to provide arms to rebels or establish a no-fly zone in Syria in response to the violence.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sunday called for “game-changing action” in Syria, saying Obama’s “red line” had been definitively crossed.

 “The whole thing is escalating,” McCain said on “Fox News Sunday.” 

“The whole situation is becoming more and more expansive, and unfortunately the red line that the president of the United States had written was apparently written in disappearing ink.”

Many Democrats, too, have said that the United States should get involved.

“I think there’s a broad consensus of support now for, at a minimum, a safe zone within Syria, where an international coalition led by the United States sets up a safe zone within Syria,” Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said Monday on MSNBC.

Some lawmakers, however, are skeptical about the United States intervening militarily, whether it would be taking out Syria’s air defenses or providing arms to the rebels.

There’s concern that U.S. intervention could also lead to greater involvement from Iran and Iraq, which are also invested in the outcome in Syria.

In neighboring Iraq, violence is on the rise again, as a United Nations report found that more people had died in Iraq last month than at any point since June 2008.

“There’s an enormous concern that it could become a more regional thing,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told The Hill.

“I’m one who is skeptical there is a quick and easy way where we can identify the so-called good rebels from the bad rebels,” said Welch, who returned from a congressional trip that included a stop at a refugee camp on the border between Turkey and Syria. 

“It looks like we’re moving toward arming the good rebels, but that’s I think a lot easier said than done.”

Carney said Monday that it was “in everyone’s interest” to support a political transition in Syria, out of concerns that the violence could threaten regional stability.

The risk of regional instability “continues to increase,” the press secretary said. 

 The chemical weapons problem has ratcheted up concerns over the possible use by Assad’s forces, as well as what will happen to the weapons if the Assad government falls.

A U.N. Human Rights Commission official on Syria said Sunday that it appeared the rebels, not Assad’s forces, had used chemical weapons in Syria. 

But the U.N. commission said Monday there was no evidence to back up the statement.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned that foreign fighters are pouring into Syria with an eye on the chemical weapons stockpiles.

“It’s deteriorating by the day,” Rogers said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” 

“Everybody wants to get their hands on chemical and more sophisticated conventional weapons. Refugees destabilizing the entire region — this is as bad a situation I have seen in a long time.”