Congressional appropriators released March 2 a defense spending bill that would prevent President Donald Trump's administration from sending shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Syrian rebels in the latest showdown between the House and Senate over the issue.
Section 9013 of the fiscal year 2017 bill, a compromise between House and Senate appropriators, simply states that "none of the funds made available by this Act under the heading ‘Counter-ISIL [Islamic State] Train and Equip Fund' may be used to procure or transfer man-portable air defense systems [MANPADS]." The restriction clashes with the annual Defense authorization bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in December; that legislation for the first time explicitly allowed the Pentagon to deliver such weapons to vetted rebel groups, under certain conditions.
"If Trump decides not to end American military support for the rebels, providing MANPADS could help the opposition maintain its positions in Idlib," Syrian opposition adviser Bassam Barabandi told Al-Monitor in December.
The March 2 spending bill would make that difficult by shutting off one of the main sources of funding for US military operations in Syria. According to an explanatory statement of the bill released by House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the House initially included the funding ban while the Senate did not.
The bill combines previous train and equip funds for Iraq and Syria into a single counter-Islamic State fund, which would receive $980 million through Sept. 30, 2018. The Pentagon, however, could still use funds from other accounts or reprogram previously approved funds if it wanted to.
The March 2 provision is but the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between the two chambers of Congress.
Key senators such as Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., have long sought to empower Syrian rebels by arming them against the air forces of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally. House members, by contrast, have been much more wary about handing over weapons that could be put to devastating use in the hands of terrorists.
The issue came to a public head in December after Senate Armed Services members overruled their House counterparts and incorporated the MANPADS authorization in the annual Defense bill. Seven senators and 34 House members voted against the bill, several of them citing support for the Syrian rebels as a reason.
"The final bill that passed today allows for the transfer of MANPADS, with some weak restrictions, which could allow terrorist groups to get ahold of them and use them against the United States and our allies," Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said in a statement at the time.
Appropriators have also battled over the issue.
The last explicit prohibition on using the Syria Train and Equip Program to procure or transfer MANPADS was contained in the fiscal year 2015 Defense Appropriations Act. The following year, the House included a similar provision in its version of the Defense Appropriations bill, but it did not survive conference with the Senate; that year's spending bill did ban MANPADS funding through the Iraq Train and Equip Fund, however.