President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday for $500 million to train and arm vetted members of the Syrian opposition, as the US struggles for a way to stem a civil war that has also fuelled the ISIS insurgency in neighbouring Iraq.
The military training programme would deepen the Obama administration’s involvement in the more than three-year conflict between anti-government rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If approved by Congress, the programme would supplement a covert train-and-assistance programme run by US intelligence agencies.
The Syria programme is part of a broader $65.8 billion overseas operations request that the administration sent to Congress on Thursday. The package includes $1 billion to help stabilise nations bordering Syria that are struggling with the effects of the civil war. It also formalises a request for a previously announced $1 billion to strengthen the US military presence in Central and Eastern Europe amid Russia’s threatening moves in Ukraine.
The requests come as Obama faces fresh criticism of his restrained policies in Syria, which some White House opponents contend allowed the Sunni insurgency pressing through Iraq to gain strength. US officials increasingly see the instability in Syria and Iraq as a single challenge, with the border between the two countries increasingly blurred.
Obama hinted earlier this year that he was seeking ways to boost assistance to moderate Syrian rebels who are struggling to make gains in their clashes with Assad’s forces.
“In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven in the chaos,” Obama told graduating cadets during a May 28 commencement address at the US Military Academy.
Officials said the administration would coordinate with Congress and regional players on the specific types of training and assistance the US would provide the opposition. One potential option would be to base US personnel in Jordan and conduct the training exercise there.
Supplement for Syria's neighbours
The Senate Armed Services Committee has already approved a version of the sweeping defence policy bill authorising the Defense Department to provide “equipment, supplies, training and defence services” to elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened. The Senate could act on the bill before the August recess.
In addition to the covert train-and-equip mission, the US has also provided nearly $287 million in nonlethal assistance to the moderate opposition.
The military programme would be supplemented by $1 billion in assistance to Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq – to help them deal with an influx of refugees and the threat of extremists spilling over their borders.
Iraq in particular is buckling amid lightening gains by the Sunni extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which also has a stronghold inside Syria. The group has seized large swaths of Iraq and seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
In response to the request, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked his staff to develop more detailed plans to train and equip the rebels, should Congress approve the funding.
“The Secretary has directed his staff to begin developing more detailed plans to carry out the train-and-equip mission, if approved by Congress,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-06-27