Top Democrat on Foreign Affairs panel calls for arming Syrian opposition

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The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel on Sunday called on the White House to arm rebels in Syria, raising pressure on President Obama to ramp up U.S. involvement in the two-year-old civil war.

“I will be introducing legislation to allow the president to arm the rebels,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said on ABC's This Week. “I think it's time to do that. I think the Free Syria Army needs help. We know who they are and I think it's time we make that move.”


The comments follow revelations that top administration officials – including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former CIA director David Petraeus and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey – have supported such a move since last year. Officials inside the White House, however, caution that weapons, in particular shoulder-fired missiles, could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.

Conditions inside Syria have steadily deteriorated over the past 23 months despite the $385 million in U.S humanitarian aid, with at least 70,000 people killed to date. Al Qaeda-linked Islamists have made gains within the rebellion, and the opposition leadership on Saturday announced that it was boycotting a meeting of international leaders – including Secretary of State John Kerry – at a summit of the so-called “Friends of Syria” next week in Rome.

"The international silence on the crimes committed every day against our people amounts to participating in two years of killings," the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. The statement in particular singled out Russia for continuing to arm the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

“We run the risk of seeing Assad hang on a long time,” Engel said. He added that the fall of the Syrian strongman would undermine America's arch-foe, Iran.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said getting more involved could give the United States much-needed credibility. He called for creating a no-fly zone in the northern part of the country and coordinating the weapons systems going to the rebels from the Gulf states.

“The United States doesn't have credibility with the opposition now,” he said. “So any diplomatic, negotiated settlement, the United States can't play an important role because they don't have the faith and confidence of the opposition.”