- Top Democrat, Republican on Senate Foreign Relations Committee push arms for rebels
- They introduce bipartisan bill set for consideration by the committee next week
- Sen. Bob Corker adds weight to original proposal by panel chair Robert Menendez
Washington's battle over whether the United States should get involved in Syria's civil war took a new turn on Wednesday as the two top senators on the Foreign Relations Committee called for arming rebels and announced that the panel would take up their proposal next week.
Sen. Robert Menendez, the committee's Democratic chairman, and Sen. Bob Corker, the panel's top Republican, introduced legislation to provide lethal weaponry and training "to vetted Syrian groups" fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, they announced in a statement.
"To change the tipping point in Syria against the Assad regime, we must support the opposition by providing lethal arms and help build a free Syria," Menendez said in the statement.
"Vital national interests are at stake and we cannot watch from the sidelines as the Iranian presence in Syria grows, a growing refugee crisis threatens to destabilize the region, chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people, and al Qaeda-affiliated groups take root there."
The United States recently boosted non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels but pressure is growing for an accelerated and more muscular western response to the crisis following the American disclosure in recent weeks that it believes chemical weapons were used in Syria.
The Obama administration has cited the potential for American weapons to reach terrorist organizations as a reason not to arm the rebels.
But Corker said the United States "has a vested interest in trying to prevent an extremist takeover, which poses a very real risk for us and the region. Without authorizing the use of force (by the United States) or additional spending, this legislation will begin to implement a more coherent U.S. strategy, both now and for the day after" al-Assad's regime falls.
Menendez offered similar legislation last week. The one introduced Wednesday was bipartisan and contained a new provision requiring the Obama administration "to work with Congress and keep it fully apprised of strategy towards Syria, including working through the international community and Russia to find a political settlement."
The "Syria Transition Support Act" also calls for military training and both lethal and non-lethal arms for vetted groups; a $250 million "transition fund each year" through fiscal year 2015, and sanctions on oil sales to al-Assad.
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing the Obama administration to get involved in the deadly conflict. But many analysts believe there's little the United States can do to influence, let alone control, the situation.
The United Nations estimates the two-year civil war has claimed more than 70,000 lives.