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February 6, 2016

A Senator’s Argument for Arming Syrian Rebels, After the ISIS Surge

Casey talks with Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress during a March discussion titled "Afghan Elections and the U.S. Role Beyond 2014." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Casey talks with Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress during a March discussion titled “Afghan Elections and the U.S. Role Beyond 2014.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Back in 2011, Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey was the first senator to say that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. Much has changed since then. A rebellion against Assad has given rise to the group that now calls itself the Islamic State, and concerns have deepened about whether U.S. aid aimed at “good” Syrian rebels could end up in the wrong hands. Some have gone as far as to suggest that the United States has arrived at a common cause with Assad.

But Casey said now it is more important than ever to deliver arms and assistance to the Syrian rebels the United States can trust — and he’s also confident we can determine who exactly they are.

In an interview Wednesday with Five By Five, Casey backed President Barack Obama’s request for $500 million to arm vetted Syrian rebels, in part as a counter to the Islamic State (aka ISIS).

“I do think that there’s even more urgency and more of a rationale for making sure that the opposition — the well-vetted segment of the opposition — has some support they don’t have right now to change the dynamic on the battlefield,” he said. “They are in essence fighting a two-front war. They’re fighting Assad, and all the horrors he’s bringing — barrel bombs, attacks on civilians; he is doing things we haven’t seen very many times in the last 25 years in any country — but they’re also fighting ISIS itself.

“Helping the opposition does have the potential to degrade ISIS somewhat, we don’t know how much; but even a small amount would help to degrade the capacity of ISIS and change the dynamic on the battlefield as it relates to Assad and push him — and this is a long way off — to the negotiation table, which is where this has to be settled,” said Casey, a member of the National Security Working Group.

Casey said the potential for ISIS seizing any weapons the United States sends over shouldn’t prevent that step, nor should concerns about the vetting of rebels.

“First off the region is awash in weapons already. I don’t think whatever we do, the aggregate number of weapons in the area, I don’t think is going to be dispositive on this,” he said. “I do have a concern about making sure we get to the right folks and the vetting done well. My God, if our government, with all the intelligence assets we have, with all the intelligence assets in the area, with whatever other intelligence we’re relying on for the over several years now — if we can’t identify through our intelligence entities individuals or groups we can work with here and arm there, then we might as well close down our intel.”

And he opposed the notion of Congress specifying which kind of weapons should be dispatched. The House recently added an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would block shoulder-fired missiles.

“I think a lot of that you have to leave up to the military planners,military commanders and CIA and intel folks,” he said. “What you don’t want is members of Congress prescribing specific weapons, specific military strategies.”

The House did vote down an amendment to block any weapons whatsoever being shipped to Syrian rebels. But that was before the Islamic State had gained so much territory. It was also before President Obama proposed the $500 million. It is a different thing to vote to foreclose any arming options in Syria, than to vote in favor of a specific proposal from the president.

Casey said pushing the plan through might not be easy, but he considers it an area where both parties can come together.

“We still have two huge hurdles. One is getting this done, getting it passed, and that’s difficult,” he said. “Two is making sure the implementation moves quickly enough that it can have an impact on the battlefield.

“This effort that we hope will be undertaken now in Syria can and should be, and I think ultimately will be, bipartisan. It may not look that way now … I think that Syria should be an area we can work together on.”

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