With the conflicts in Syria and Iraq becoming increasingly intertwined against the same Sunni extremist group, President Barack Obama moved on Thursday to ratchet up U.S. efforts to strengthen more moderate Syrian rebels.
Obama’s request to Congress for $500 million in training and arms to the opposition in effect opens a second front in the fight against militants spilling over Syria’s border and threatening to overwhelm neighboring Iraq. The train-and-equip mission would be overseen by the Pentagon and would mark a significant expansion of previous covert effort to arm the more moderate rebels who are fighting both the extremists and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Obama has long been reluctant to arm the opposition, in part because of concerns that weapons may fall into extremist hands. But administration officials say the U.S. has grown increasingly confident in recent months about its ability to distinguish the moderate rebels from the more extremist elements that include the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which has stormed into Syria and captured much of the northern part of the country.
The Syria program is part of a broader $65.8 billion overseas operations request that the administration sent to Capitol Hill Thursday. The package includes $1 billion to help stabilize nations bordering Syria that are struggling with the effects of the civil war. It also formalizes a request for a previously announced $1 billion to strengthen the U.S. 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. U.S. officials increasingly see the instability in Syria and Iraq as a single challenge, with the border between the two countries blurred.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has already approved a version of the sweeping defense policy bill authorizing the Defense Department to provide “equipment, supplies, training and defense services” to elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened. The Senate could act on the bill before the August recess.
The total overseas contingency package is about $21 billion less than the administration said it expected to request when Obama submitted his fiscal year 2015 budget to Congress earlier this year. Officials said the decrease is in part of reflection of Obama’s plans to drawdown the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to about 10,000 forces by the beginning of next year.
But some lawmakers in Congress have looked at the overseas account as a source of cash as the Pentagon is being forced to cut its core budget. The House version of the sweeping defense policy bill for next year would shift some $600 million from the overseas account to spare the A-10 Warthog, the close air support aircraft that has a strong coalition of Republican and Democratic support on Capitol Hill.
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