House vote: Plan to arm Syrian rebels troubles California lawmakers

Free Syrian Army fighters man an anti-aircraft gun on the back of a truck.
Free Syrian Army fighters man an anti-aircraft gun on the back of a truck.

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

In his speech to the nation last week, President Obama asked Congress for the authority and resources to train and equip fighters opposing Islamic militants in Syria. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will respond, holding a vote on a measure by the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita, to "train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups or individuals."

In recent polls, Americans have voiced support for military action against the group which calls itself the Islamic State, and has distributed gruesome videotapes depicting beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker. But many Californians on Capitol Hill are uneasy about McKeon's proposal. Unlike most legislative battles, this one does not break down along traditional party lines.

Long Beach Democrat Alan Lowenthal says he has "real concerns" about the Syrian Free Army. He wonders whether they're "truly" supportive of American goals or do they have "other agendas?"

Huntington Beach Republican Dana Rohrabacher says he'll vote "no" - saying the strategy "won't work and could do great harm.” He also mistrusts the Free Syrian Army, which includes people who are "demonstrably radical Islamic themselves and are likely, in the long run, to be our enemy." 

Paul Cook, a Republican from Barstow, is a retired Marine Colonel who served in Vietnam. His doubts are rooted in military history, saying America's been "down this road before, and it hasn’t worked." He says the strategy lacks a "unity of command." In other words, how's an army supposed to fight Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, on one hand, and fight the Islamic militant group known as the Islamic State on the other? "I'm very, very nervous," he says.

Logistics are on the mind of Burbank Democrat Adam Schiff. He's skeptical about our ability to train large numbers of the moderate opposition "which in the past hasn’t proved to be very moderate or cohesive as a fighting force."

Like Lowenthal and Rohrabacher, he has doubts about the loyalty of the rebels, saying they've sided both with forces we support as well as those we "detest" - like Al Qaida. "And undoubtedly," Schiff says, elements of this opposition "are going to do things that we would find deplorable."

Both Lowenthal and Rohrabacher support the President's strategy for airstrikes - Rohrabacher thinks we should have started sooner, after the first American, James Foley, was beheaded. Cook is still on the fence.

Schiff says he has a lot of questions, but he thinks saying "no" would be seen as a vote of no confidence in the administration, and that could have an impact on the president's ability to build international coalition. If nothing else, he says, approving the amendment may get our Gulf allies "all on the same page" about who we should support.

The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce strongly supports the amendment. Speaking on the House floor late Tuesday, the Fullerton Republican describes the Syrian opposition as fighters who have "risked their lives to combat the Assad regime and ISIL terrorists."

There is also the question about what the president can do without Congressional approval. Schiff insists it's the "institutional responsibility" of Congress to declare war or decide to reject it. He's proposed a joint resolution authorizing the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against the Islamic militant group known as the Islamic State for 18 months. "If Congress sits on its hands now," he says, "presidents will conclude they can go to war without the Congress." That resolution will not be considered before Congress returns to Washington after the November elections.

The vote to arm and train Syrian rebels will come as an amendment to a spending bill to keep the government running.

McKeon Amendment

Schiff Resolution