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Obama wants $165 million for Syrian rebels

The US president’s $5.6 billion emergency war-fighting request includes a plan to shore up the Syrian opposition.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with more than 20 foreign defense chiefs to discuss the coalition efforts in the ongoing campaign against ISIL at Joint Base Andrews in Washington October 14, 2014.  Some three weeks before U.S. congressional elections viewed largely as a referendum on Obama's leadership, the president will aim to show the U.S. public and allies abroad that he is committed to a plan to "degrade" and "destroy" the group that has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

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President Barack Obama is asking Congress for an extra $165 million to boost the Syrian opposition as part of his $5.6 billion request to fight the Islamic State (IS), a tacit acknowledgment that the group can’t be defeated in Iraq alone.

The request is included in a 34-page letter from the Office of Management and Budget that was sent to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Nov. 10. Congress returns from its election day recess on Nov. 12 and administration officials are urging a quick vote so they can start deploying an extra 1,500 troops to help the Iraqi army battle IS.

The request includes $100 million in Economic Support Fund spending to support “Syrian stabilization strategies” and allow the State Department to “expand its engagement with the moderate Syrian opposition” and “help develop the capacity, cohesion, and credibility of the opposition.” It would also increase the Peacekeeping Operations budget by $65 million for “programs to bolster the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition to counter [IS] and other extremist groups.”

“The Department of State will expand its engagement with the moderate Syrian opposition,” the OMB letter states, “to help develop their capacity to provide local security in areas previously under IS control and foster the conditions that lead to a political settlement.”

The request comes amid mixed messages about the administration’s strategy for dealing with IS in Syria.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reportedly criticized the lack of focus on Syria in a recent memo to national security adviser Susan Rice, according to The New York Times and CNN. And lawmakers in September raised concerns that the president’s plan to train and equip 5,000 Syrian rebels to fight IS was poorly thought out even as they approved the request.

Obama himself told visiting military leaders last month that defeating IS would "require us developing and strengthening a moderate opposition inside of Syria that is in a position then to bring about the kind of legitimacy and sound governance for all people inside of Syria” — a statement warmly welcomed by regime change advocates. At a press conference last week, however, the president repeatedly called Iraq America’s “number one” focus.

The Nov. 10 request contains several other noteworthy elements, including:

  • A $1.6 billion “Iraq Train and Equip Fund,” first announced last week, that requires the Iraqi and other foreign governments to kick in at least $640 million before the United States releases all the funding.
  • A $250 million boost in Foreign Military Financing to help Jordan and Lebanon “protect national territory, maintain control over borders, and combat threats posed by [IS] and other extremists in the region.”
  • An extra $90 million to address humanitarian needs in Iraq, including “health, food, protection, shelter [and] clean water.”
  • $14.9 million for US government counter-messaging. This includes $8.6 million to expand counterterrorism “messaging” in Arabic, Urdu and Somali by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and another $6.3 million for international broadcasting operations, including Voice of America’s Kurdish and Turkish programming.