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House votes to arm Syrian rebels with eye toward Assad

Regime change in Syria remains the endgame for measure's earliest supporters.
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Robert Menendez (D-NJ)(R) questions Secretary of State John Kerry as Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) looks on during a hearing on "U.S. Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" on Capitol Hill in Washington September 17, 2014.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR46NIU

The US House of Representatives voted 273-156 on Sept. 17 to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, sending the measure to the Senate for quick action before Congress leaves town until after the November midterm elections.

While the immediate goal is to defeat the Islamic State (IS), key lawmakers made clear that their ultimate objective remains the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The handful of House and Senate members who have supported the mission for more than a year — long before IS, ISIS and ISIL became household names — said they remain committed to regime change in Syria and expressed concern that the Barack Obama administration has put that goal to rest.

"The crisis does not end unless the moderate opposition is empowered to show the Syrian people that they can fight ISIS and win, and later on they’ll fight Assad and win," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said on the House floor the day before the vote. "Through this strategy, the moderate opposition can gain leverage and create the conditions on the ground to compel a political solution."

Engel introduced the first bill to arm vetted Syrian rebels 18 months ago. Since then, the bill has only garnered seven co-sponsors.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which voted 15-3 to arm vetted rebels in May 2013, shared similar concerns.

A successful US policy in Syria "means training and equipping a vetted Syrian opposition force that shares our vision for a pluralistic, free Syria — free of ISIL and all violent extremist groups, but also free of Assad and his regime backers," Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said at a hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry while the vote was going on. "This fighting force should be prepared to support a post-Assad political structure, whatever the circumstances under which he ultimately leaves Syria by negotiated settlement or other means."

Faced with sharp questions about what the endgame is with regard to Assad, Kerry hinted that secret plans are in place to get rid of him.

He testified that arming vetted rebels "will be critical in our effort to bring about the political solution necessary to address the crisis in Syria once and for all." He offered to brief lawmakers in closed session about plans to make that transition a reality after more than three years of war and 200,000 deaths.

"It's ... critical that the opposition makes the most of the additional support," Kerry said. "They need to take this opportunity to prove to the world that they can become a viable alternative to the current regime."

President Barack Obama hinted at regime change in his Sept. 10 address to the nation.

"In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost," he said at the time. "Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all."

But the president made no mention of Assad in his remarks at MacDill Air Force Base hours before the vote in which he ruled out boots on the ground in the war against IS.

And the legislation that passed, from House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., does not mention Assad, but simply states that one of its goals is "promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria." Likewise, the White House statement of administration policy in favor of the amendment doesn't mention what happens the day after IS is defeated in Syria.

Some lawmakers aren't buying that the administration is serious about taking on Assad.

"We cannot have a plan that does not address the removal of Assad simultaneously alongside the destruction of ISIL and the other terrorist threats," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, said in a statement after the vote. "Even though I will vote for the McKeon amendment, we still won’t be approaching this situation in a comprehensive manner that is required."

Engel and the lawmakers who joined him on his bill last year urged the president to stand by his assurances that Assad's days are "numbered."

"I see Assad and ISIS as two sides of the same coin," Engel said on the House floor on Sept. 16. "Fighting one must not empower the other. Only fighting Assad would allow ISIS to flourish, but only fighting ISIS would leave Assad in power. He is the biggest magnet drawing foreign fighters to ISIS, believe it or not. They have this symbiotic relationship from all around the globe."

Getting rid of Assad is "part of a broader effort, but in the immediate future we have to deal with the ISIL threat," House Armed Services member Andre Carson, D-Ind., told Al-Monitor. "My hope is that at least we can, through a unified effort, deal with isolating and decimating the threat enough to deal with the other question later. ... After you clean house, you're going to have to deal with the bad guy."

House Foreign Affairs member Brad Sherman, D-Calif., also said the United States should keep an eye on post-IS Syria.

"The rationale [last year] was to strengthen the forces of reason inside Syria, knowing that Assad was willing to kill hundreds of thousands and knowing that there was also Sunni extremists," he told Al-Monitor. "Eventually wars end, and those with a seat at the bargaining table are those with the strongest militaries. And the hope was the reasonable forces in Syria — which are, you know, tough to identify, tough to vet — would be in the strongest position. And I think that's the intention of the vote today, that was the intention of the bill then."

A dream team of diplomats and military leaders made a similar pitch in a letter to Congress hours before the vote.

"Providing greater assistance to FSA [Free Syrian Army] is the United States’ best opportunity to develop a moderate force that is capable of defeating ISIS and bringing about a post-Assad Syria that is free of terror," wrote ambassadors Robert Ford and Ryan Crocker, who respectively served in Syria and Iraq, and retired Gens. David Petraeus and Jack Keane.

Others, however, have all but given up on a unified Syria under a pro-Western government.

Rep. James Moran, D-Va., another early co-sponsor of Engel's bill, did not mention Assad in his own floor speech.

"I do think that things have gotten so complicated in Syria that we don't have an immediate solution to the issue of Assad being in charge of the Syrian government," he told Al-Monitor. "It would be good if we could remove Assad, but I'm becoming increasingly skeptical that we're going to be able to replace him with a secular, stable government."

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