Irked lawmakers say Kerry left them in the dark on Syria aid

Lawmakers on Thursday said the State Department left Congress in the dark about the administration's decision to aid rebel forces in Syria.

The leaders of the panels that cover foreign policy told The Hill they weren't briefed ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement Thursday that America would be sending $60 million worth of food and medicine directly to the rebels battling Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services panels — Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — weren't informed ahead of time, but did not express complaints.

Republicans also weren't informed, and expressed dismay at being shut out as the administration crafts a major piece of America's policy in the Middle East.

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Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Kerry used to chair, said his staff were talking to the State Department until 8 p.m. Wednesday to get a sense of what might be discussed at Thursday's meeting in Rome with the Syrian opposition. They were told nothing.

“So, we're going to have a little discussion with them about that,” he said. “I mean, look, we probably support the policy. But we were a little disappointed that no head's up was given. It's not a good way to start out and we want to make sure it does not happen again.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he wasn't briefed, either.

“Isn't that strange?” he said. “Yeah, I should have.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who preceded Inhofe in the role and has called for arming the rebels, said the administration “certainly won't communicate with us on Syria.”

“It's a half measure,” he said. “And I know from my sources that many of those weapons [provided by other countries in ] are not getting through … are going to the wrong people, these jihadist outfits. And here we are 23 months into it, 70,000 dead, so it's a small half-measure."

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), said the decision to blindside Congress was unsurprising.

“There's lots of things they don't brief us on,” he said. “That's just kind of way things go. I can't lose any sleep over that; they're going to do what they're going to do.”

He declined to weigh in on the policy itself.

“Generally,” he said, arming groups “doesn't work very well for us. At some point, they start using bullets to shoot back at us.”

Decisions on Syria by all accounts have been made within the White House National Security Council. 

National security leaders in the president's first term — Hillary Clinton at State, Leon Panetta at Defense, David Petraeus at the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey — all supported arming the rebels last summer but were overruled by a White House concerned about getting involved in another Middle East war and providing weapons that could be one day be used against America.

Congress has been losing patience with months of assertions by the White House and the State Department that Assad would fall “any day now.”

Republican hawks led by McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have called for arming the opposition. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in a foreign policy address Wednesday, pressed for the administration to begin sending ammunition to the Syrian fighters.

Kerry's announcement fell short of reports that the administration was considering sending body armor and helmets. He defended the decision during a press conference in Rome, his fourth stop on his nine-nation inaugural trip.

“I am absolutely confident from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals,” Kerry said.

This story was updated at 5:13 p.m.