As the 2 ½-year-old war in Syria grinds on with over 100,000 fatalities, the U.S. continues to inch toward arming rebel groups and a possible large-scale military intervention — despite fears that U.S. weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups operating inside the country.
Al-Jazeera reports that Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees broke an impasse July 12 when critics of the decision to arm groups inside Syria tentatively agreed that the Obama administration could proceed with the plan.
President Barack Obama first announced his intent to arm rebel groups in June after reports from the U.S. intelligence community surfaced alleging Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons to kill 100-150 people.
The secular nationalist opposition continues to be led by the Free Syrian Army, seen as the legitimate opposition by most U.S. policymakers. The problem is that many other radical Salafist groups have entered the fray and are now fighting inside Syria, raising the prospect that U.S. arms and supplies could fall into the hands of terrorists sympathetic to al-Qaida. These groups include Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian Islamic Front. The BBC reports that these groups could collectively comprise upwards of 30,000 fighters.
After some internal opposition to the plan, the House Intelligence Committee gave a cautious go-ahead this week but has requested that the administration provide regular updates on the impact of U.S. arms in the country.
“We got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration’s plans and intentions are in Syria consistent with committee reservations,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers in a statement to Reuters.
Elected officials may now be on the same page when it comes to arming Syrian rebels, but their position appears to be out of sync with the majority of Americans, who stand opposed to sending U.S. arms to Syrian rebels.
According to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University, 59 percent of Americans oppose providing arms and military supplies to anti-government groups battling Assad.
This follows reports from The New York Times showing that U.S. involvement in Syria will likely be costlier and lengthier than the “no-fly” zone established in Libya in 2011.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that any U.S. involvement would be akin to “an act of war.” He reported that “long-range strikes on the Syrian government’s military targets would require hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers” that would cost “in the billions.”
Haaretz newspaper reports that Dempsey enumerated several additional options for increasing U.S. involvement, including “efforts to train, advise and assist the opposition; conduct limited missile strikes; set up a no-fly zone; establish buffer zones, most likely across the borders with Turkey or Jordan; and take control of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.”
Dempsey’s bold predictions are consistent with previous estimates from The Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. A report published by Brookings last year predicted that the U.S. would have to commit 200,000-300,000 troops and at least $300 billion for an effective ground invasion that accomplishes the goal of overthrowing Assad’s Baathist regime.
Some conservative senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), have proposed no-fly zones and other direct forms of military intervention but stopped short of calling for U.S. boots on the ground in Syria.
McCain reiterated his support for U.S. intervention last month during a televised interview on “CBS This Morning.”
“I believe we could still intervene by cruise missiles taking out their [air forces] on the runway, providing a safe zone protected by Patriot missiles. No boots on the ground. No American aircraft overhead,” he said.
After a decade of war in Iraq and nearly 12 years of involvement in Afghanistan, a war-weary public remains mostly opposed to the prospect of any U.S. involvement in Syria. According to a recent Quinnipiac national poll, 61 percent of American voters think that it is not in the national interest to be involved in Syria.
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