JUNE 26, 2014
Obama Requests Money to Train 'Appropriately Vetted' Syrian Rebels
By HELENE COOPER
WASHINGTON -- President Obama requested $500 million from Congress on Thursday to train and equip what the White House is calling "appropriately vetted" members of the Syrian opposition, reflecting increased worry about the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Iraq.
The training program would be a significant step for a president who has consistently resisted providing military aid to the rebels in the conflict in Syria, and has warned of the dangers of American intervention. But military and State Department officials indicated that there were not yet any specific programs to arm and train the rebels that the money would fund, nor could administration officials specify which moderate Syrian opposition members they intended to train and support, or where they would be trained.
"While we continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria, this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks," Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement. She also said the money and training would help Syrians fight extremists "who find safe haven in the chaos."
Some foreign policy experts were more blunt.
"I think the president has realized that the containment of the Syria crisis has not worked," said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. With the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the long-running Syria crisis has "become a threat to the homeland, because this is a durable safe haven" for terrorists, Mr. Tabler said.
Mr. Obama's request calls for the Pentagon to "train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement."
It also reflects a scramble by the administration to try to put some form to the president's surprise announcement last month of plans for a $5 billion counterterrorism fund to provide training for operations in vulnerable countries in the Middle East. Mr. Obama's announcement of the fund during a West Point speech on foreign policy last month was sudden in coming, several administration officials said; at the time, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department had drawn up plans for spending the money.
"There's not a lot of detail here," said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he added, are "going to immediately say, what's it for?"
The White House is asking for $4 billion to go to the Pentagon and $1 billion to the State Department for other counterterrorism operations, including training and equipping partner countries. Some of the money, administration officials said, would cover increased costs of Special Operations Forces that have deployed around the world, while $1.5 billion would go toward counterterrorism efforts in the neighborhood around Syria: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The president also wants to set aside $500 million to "address unforeseen contingencies" in counterterrorism, namely Iraq, an administration official said. After withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq in 2011, Mr. Obama now confronts a crisis there as Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have overrun several major cities, including Mosul, and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has seemed powerless to stop them.
Last week, President Obama announced that he was sending 300 American military advisers to Iraq to set up joint operations centers, one in Baghdad and one likely in Kurdistan. The advisers, who began arriving this week, are to assess whether the Iraqi army is able to stand up to the insurgency, and will also try to get a better fix on the capabilities -- and potential vulnerabilities -- of the Qaeda-inspired insurgents. Mr. Obama has not ruled out airstrikes.