After years of capitulation to greater and greater Executive Branch encroachment on Congressional authority, a growing number of Representatives and Senators are finally standing up to the Obama Administration and rejecting the President's plans to arm the Syrian rebels and draw the United States into a spreading sectarian war inside the Islamic world. On June 26, Associated Press reported that the House Select Committee on Intelligence had unanimously rejected the Obama Adminstration's request for authorization to begin overtly arming the Syrian rebels. According to the AP account, "Lawmakers last week rejected the Obama administration's initial proposal to arm Syrian rebels, refusing to fund the plan until the White House presents options for what action the US might take at the UN, or what actions might trigger the administration to set up a… no-fly zone. At one of the closed-door briefings, Kerry outlined broad strategy for Syria, while a senior CIA official discussed the specifics of the agency's plan to arm and train selected rebels. One official familiar with that briefing said lawmakers were skeptical of the CIA's plans and raised numerous questions."
Reportedly, several other Congressional committees whose approval is also needed to transfer funds from one intelligence program to another also rejected the administration's request. Furthermore, four bills have been introduced into the House of Representatives since President Obama first announced plans to begin arming the Syrian rebels on June 13, all placing a block on any such actions without prior Congressional approval. On June 19, Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Min.) introduced HR 2432 prohibiting the United States from arming the Syrian rebels. The next day, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced H. Con. Res. 40, making it an impeachable offense for President Obama to engage in any way in military activity in Syria without first obtaining Congressional authorization. And on June 25, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fl.), a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, co-sponsored HR 2501, which would also bar arming the rebels. In a joint statement, the two Congressmen declared "The President needs to make a convincing case that this is in our national security interest, and he needs to lay out a clear and comprehensive mission, including an exit strategy. He hasn't done that yet."
On June 26, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced HR 2507 intended to "prohibit any military assistance to Syrian opposition force unless Congress issues a formal declaration of war pursuant to Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution."
The actions coming out of Congress have been further backed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. At a June 27 Pentagon press briefing with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Gen. Dempsey warned, "If we chose to conduct a no-fly zone, it's essentially an act of war, and I'd like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war." Earlier in the week, in an interview with WTOP radio in Washington, Gen. Dempsey elaborated on his opposition, noting that "The conflict has been somewhat hijacked by extremists on both sides–Lebanese Hezbollah on the Shia side or on the regime side and elements of al Qaida on the Sunni side. It's a conflict or a challenge that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad."
While the Obama Administration has claimed that the US will carefully vet the Syrian opposition groups on the receiving end of the arms supplies, there is deep and legitimate skepticism that this is possible. The Administration's case was severely damaged when, on June 13, the day that the President announced the decision to begin arming the Syrian rebels, top White House aides including Gayle Smith, the Senior Director of the National Security Council, met with a leading Sunni cleric with strong ties to both the Al Nusra Front and Egyptian jihadist groups. Abdullah bin-Bayyah is the vice president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a group led by Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, a firebrand jihadist who has repeatedly called for a "Sunni jihad in Syria," and who denounces Alawites and Shiites as "worse than Christians and Jews." The photograph of bin-Bayyah, seated at a White House conference table with senior Administration officials, including Smith and Rashad Hussain, the US Ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), is prominently featured on his website.
After disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after the overthrow of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi without any Congressional approval, it appears that some Members of Congress are beginning to wake up to their responsibilities under the US Constitution. While evidence has surfaced in a recent United Nations report and in several media accounts that the Obama Administration has been covertly arming the Syrian rebels since no later than April 2012, the fact that Obama has gone ahead with overt arms shipments this week–having been turned down by Congressional committees–will put the Congress to the test in the coming days.