Menendez: Arm Syrian rebels

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), has joined the growing chorus of lawmakers calling on the Obama administration to arm the rebels in Syria.

Menendez said he would be introducing legislation to that effect “in the weeks ahead.” The House Foreign Affairs Committee is also expected to soon take up similar legislation from ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

“In my view, looking at the situation as it exists, the time has come to consider providing military aid to the opposition,” Menendez said at a hearing Thursday on U.S. policy in Syria. “It should include weapons but stop short of those weapons that could threaten our own interests if they fall into the wrong hands, like shoulder-fired missiles.”

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Obama's former secretaries of State and Defense, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, recommended arming vetted rebels last summer. But the White House has balked out of concern that weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist militants who could use them against U.S. interests.

Menendez also called for increasing humanitarian aid, sanctioning Russia and Iran if they continue to support President Bashar Assad, and training rebel forces. He said those efforts would help the United States establish “working relationships with the future leaders of Syria.”

Menendez made the remarks amid reports that Islamists are becoming the strongest opposition force. Syria's Al Nusra Front, the most powerful rebel force fighting the Assad government, pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in Iraq on Wednesday.

"The Asad regime has created an environment that fuels the growth of extremism, and al-Qa’ida linked groups are working to exploit the situation for their own benefit," Obama's ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said in written testimony. "There is a real competition now between extremists and moderates in Syria and we need to weigh in on behalf of those who promote freedom and tolerance."

He reiterated however that the administration's policy is to support the opposition through non-lethal means. He said a negotiated political settlement that guarantees a place for the Alawite minority and regime supporters in a future Syria is the only way to end the conflict.

"If there is not a negotiated settlement," Ford said, "our sense is that regime supporters, fearing death, will fight to the death."

Menendez said the two-year-old civil war had reached a stalemate and Assad remained well-armed. He called on the administration to do more.

“If we take these bold steps — publicly and forcefully with the support of our allies — we will send a strong signal to key Middle Eastern and European partners that they should get behind a joint effort,” he said. “A signal to countries like Iraq that it's time to get behind the international community and cut off the supply lines that stretch from Tehran and Damascus, across Iraq. And it will send a strong signal to Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian efforts to keep him in power will be in vain.”