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Jeremy Au Yong
Sunday, Sep 21, 2014

World

House backs Obama plan to arm rebels

The Straits Times | Jeremy Au Yong | Sunday, Sep 21, 2014

Kurdish Peshmerga female fighters yesterday taking part in combat skills training in Sulaimaniya, northern Iraq, before being deployed to fight the ISIS. US President Obama gained bipartisan support from lawmakers in a 273-156 vote to arm and train rebels from the moderate Free Syrian Army.

United States lawmakers took their first tentative step towards approving President Barack Obama's strategy against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants when the House backed a controversial plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.

In a notable change from recent form, the move gained bipartisan support in a 273-156 vote with strong support from Democratic and Republican leaders.

Speaker John Boehner, better known for his conflicts with the President, supported the proposal and also worked with the White House to lobby lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House. Mr Obama and other White House officials also spent much of the day personally lobbying congressmen.

In the end, a sizeable group of war-weary lawmakers - 85 Democrats and 71 Republicans - opposed the measure, arguing that it would set the country back on the path towards a wider conflict.

"It is more complex than just an up-or-down vote on arming and training members of the Free Syrian Army. The consequences of this vote, whether it's written in the amendment or not, will be a further expansion of a war currently taking place and our further involvement in a sectarian war," said Ms Barbara Lee, a Democrat.

Still, the administration is likely to face far more difficult days in Congress as it seeks to shore up support for its anti-ISIS strategy.

The proposal in the House did not include any provisions to fund aid for Syrian rebels. After passage through the House, it is expected to get swift approval from the Democrat-controlled Senate.

While thanking Congress for the vote, President Obama reiterated his promise that the battle would not involve American combat forces on the ground.

"This training programme will be conducted outside of Syria, in partnership with regional countries. There will be no US military personnel in Syria as part of this programme," he said.

"Today, the United States House of Representatives took an important step forward as our nation unites to confront the threat posed by the terrorist group known as ISIL," he said, using an alternative name for ISIS.

The President took that same message to the troops on a visit to an air force base in Florida. "The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists. As your commander- in-chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq," he said at the MacDill Air Force Base.

The administration has been busy reiterating its "no boots on the ground" policy since Tuesday, when General Martin Dempsey - the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff - told Congress that he might recommend US troops at the front lines in some scenarios.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry stated categorically that the policy had not changed.

"President Obama made clear that we will be expanding the military campaign to take on ISIL in Iraq, in Syria, wherever it is found. But this is not the Gulf war in 1991; it is not the Iraq war in 2003; and that's true for a number of reasons. Number one, US ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 19, 2014.
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