Congress is so concerned that U.S. weapons could reach al-Qaeda-linked extremists that it’s reportedly holding up the Obama administration’s plans to arm Syrian "rebels."
In an exclusive report based on interviews with five unnamed U.S. security sources, Reuters writes that congressional committees are holding up the military aid because of fears it could end up in the hands of jihadi militants of the Al-Nusra Front – which is believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda. Congress has also expressed concern that those weapons may not be decisive in the ongoing battle between Syrian President Bashar Assad and his opponents.
Quoting Arab and Syrian opposition sources, Reuters reports that as a result, no U.S. weapons have arrived yet in Syria. It also reports that funding for the weapons deliveries “has been temporarily frozen.”
According to Reuters, the Senate and House intelligence committees have conveyed their concerns about the administration’s plans in closed door meetings.
The news agency describes a secret briefing last month during which Secretary of State John Kerry and outgoing CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told congressional intelligence committees about the plans to arm rebels in light of evidence that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, crossing a red line that President Barack Obama had defined.
According to Reuters, members of both committees voiced doubts, a sentiment echoed in the appropriations committees of both the House and the Senate.
"As noted at the time we announced the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council, we will continue to consult closely with Congress on these matters," National Security Council Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told Reuters on Monday.
Technically, the administration does not need specific congressional approval either through public legislation or some kind of legislative sanction process to move ahead with the weapons plan. The president already has legal authority to order such shipments, several sources said.
However, under tacit rules observed by the executive branch and Congress on intelligence matters, administrations will not move ahead with programs like weapons deliveries to the Syrian opposition if one or both of the congressional intelligence committees express serious objections.
Last month, the Obama administration announced that it would begin supplying military support to Syrian rebels. Though the types of weapons were not detailed, officials told the Associated Press that the aid could include “small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other missiles.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said then that "The president has made a decision about providing more support for the opposition and will be providing further support to the SMC (Supreme Military Council) and that includes providing military support. I can't detail what types of support yet."
Sen. John McCain who has been a proponent of arming rebels said then, “…the President of the United States had better understand that just supplying weapons is not going to change the equation on the ground [or] the balance of power.”
“These people – the Free Syrian Army – need weapons, heavy weapons to counter tanks and aircraft, they need a no-fly zone, and Bashar al-Assad's air assets have to be taken out and neutralized. We can do that without risking a single American airplane,” McCain said last month according to various news reports.
Rhodes said in June that the administration had not yet made a decision about setting up a no-fly zone.