By LARA JAKES, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A newly approved U.S. aid package of weapons to Syrian rebels may be too little, too late to reverse recent battlefield gains by President Bashar Assad's government — and few in Washington are enthusiastic about sending it.
But the White House is pushing ahead with the arms, which one official described as mostly light weapons, in the belief that doing something is better than doing nothing to help in the two-year Syrian civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people — even if the package is far less than rebels say they need.
Almost a year ago, during his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama warned that the use, deployment or transfer to terror groups of chemical weapons by Assad would amount to what he called a "red line" and bring "enormous consequences." U.S. intelligence officials concluded in June that Assad probably had used chemical weapons at least four times this year in attacks that killed up to 150 people.
That left Obama with little choice but to launch the minimal weapons plan, especially after congressional intelligence committees reluctantly approved it this week.
"There probably was a vigorous debate within the administration about what to do in Syria," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence Committee who opposes arming the rebels. "I don't know that anyone is particularly enthusiastic with the approach that they are recommending. But they certainly feel it's the best they could come up with, and best they could reach their own consensus over."
Schiff would not discuss specifics of the classified package but signaled that it would neither directly neutralize the chemical weapons nor provide enough firepower to "tilt the battlefield" in the rebels' favor.
The Obama administration also wouldn't detail the plans or when weapons would be shipped. Two officials familiar with the aid said it is worth a few hundred million dollars, and Republican Sen. John McCain, who wants stronger U.S. involvement, this week described the package as "light weapons" — meaning mostly small arms, assault rifles and ammunition. Other U.S. officials have said anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other missiles could be included.
But the arms are likely to fall short of the heavy munitions the Syrian rebels have requested to stop Assad's tanks and other heavy weapons.
Schiff said Congress would review funding for the package at least annually, giving the White House "the opportunity to discuss other things that they can do, and are doing, rather than becoming an arms supplier."
Other House Intelligence members suggested the weapons plan was not robust enough. The committee "has very strong concerns about the strength of the administration's plans in Syria and its chances for success" but gave its approval after discussion and review, Chairman Mike Rogers said in a statement.
Beyond the ever-growing and casualty toll, the U.S. fears Syria's civil war could spill over its borders and destabilize the already-shaky Mideast, potentially isolating Israel and roiling global oil markets. Additionally, the U.N. estimates that at least 1.6 million Syrian refugees already have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt — all of which are struggling with their own economic and domestic troubles. Jordan's economy in particular is seen as in danger.
The sectarian nature of Syria's war — Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and most of the opposition are Sunni Muslims — is a major security concern for the Mideast.
With help from Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops and Hezbollah militants from Lebanon, Assad's forces have resurged in key pockets across Syria over the past few months after giving up ground to the rebellion in the early stages of the war. Combined with tacit approval from Baghdad to let Iran ship aid to Syria through Iraqi airspace, the regional backing for Assad has effectively created a crescent of Shiite-led governments and forces. That presents a hostile front to Israel and to Mideast nations that are largely Sunni. Already, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have rushed to arm or otherwise help the rebels.