Obama Won’t Commit to Syria, But Congress Can

The United States began directly fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, aka ISIL, Islamic State) this weekend through airstrikes on its terrorist forces in Iraq. The strikes helped the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish Regional Government solidify their defenses, stabilizing one front against ISIS. However, ISIS continues to maintain and consolidate a significant safe haven in Syria, which the United States can no longer afford to ignore.

Before the August recess, Congress was presented with an opportunity to work to eliminate ISIS’ safe haven by increasing support to the moderate armed Syrian opposition. To date, there has been little action. Congress has not yet missed its chance, but the clock is ticking.

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President Barack Obama’s reluctant, belated, and vague $500 million train-and-equip proposal to support the Syrian opposition presents Congress with an opportunity. This plan should support the moderate armed Syrian opposition in their fight against both ISIS and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The current lack of detail in the plan gives Congress leeway to debate, inform, and even legislate the details and objectives of increased support. Rafik Hariri Center Resident Fellow Faysal Itani outlined the nature of this opportunity in The Hill in late July. Despite bipartisan calls for changes to US Syria policy, Congress looks poised to miss its best opportunity to make such changes.

With the exception of leaders on the Syria issue, most Members and Senators are either undecided about the administration’s proposal, or oppose it. Even supporters have not been given sufficient information about the proposed policy to lend it their full-throated support.

The small minority who oppose the administration’s policy in principle are politicians who, for different reasons, believe there is little the United States can do to shape positive outcomes in Syria and the fight against ISIS, and generally argue for a reduced US role in international affairs. These individuals are unlikely to support any increased US involvement or leadership regardless of the details. Some others oppose the proposal because it does not comply with the standard policy process, submitted outside the framework for regular defense appropriations requests.

Those who remain undecided, a majority of Congress, generally fall into two groups: The first believes the burden is on the administration to sell its plan to Congress, which it has yet to do in sufficient detail. The second believes that the train-and-equip plan was a better idea two years ago than it is now; they argue the plan addresses 2012 Syria adequately, but fails to incorporate the significant changes that have transformed and regionalized the Syria crisis since 2012, including the spread of ISIS.

However legitimate they may be, these objections should not become an excuse for inaction. The lack of detail in the administration’s proposal is an opportunity for Congress to provide input. If Congress truly wants to help shape policy, it should take this opportunity to hold hearings on Syria, ISIS, and the budget request at the highest level—including the participation of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to demand answers and details. A hearing would both clarify the choices facing Congress, and force the administration to better develop, or at least better articulate, its proposed policy.

If Congress chooses to act, there are three legislative vehicles through which the President’s $500 million train-and-equip request can move: The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the main Defense Appropriations bill, and the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund (OCO).

The NDAA passed the House in May. Because that happened before the president announced the train-and-equip program, the program’s funding falls under a $5 billion counter-terrorism fund in the OCO request, rather than being included in the defense appropriations request. The House passed the main defense appropriations bill in June. House committees have debated the OCO, but have yet to vote on it.

The Senate version of the NDAA passed through the Armed Services Committee with language authorizing the train-and-equip program for the moderate armed Syrian opposition, but is yet to be considered by the full Senate. Efforts to remove the authorizing language were defeated in committee. Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised a vote on the NDAA in September, but it is unclear if there will be enough time, as a vote on the NDAA traditionally takes a week.

The Senate Defense Appropriations bill and the OCO passed the Senate Appropriations committee. Senator Mark Pryor introduced an amendment to remove the train-and-equip funding, but the other members of the committee decided to leave the funding in the OCO. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski noted that the committee supported the train-and-equip funding in the OCO because it provided the administration the opportunity to run the program, but did not require it to do so.

Moving forward, the Senate looks more likely to pass legislation shaping Syria policy than the House. The issue is still controversial, as evidenced by the Appropriations Committee debate, but previous committee votes in the Senate have showed more yeas than nays, giving Syria-watchers reason for optimism.

Midterm politics could prove disruptive: Senate Republicans could hold up the NDAA if they believe they will gain control of the Senate. Given bipartisan support for the Syria program, this would not necessarily kill the program, but would delay its approval into 2015, wasting valuable time.

If the NDAA does come to the floor of the Senate before the midterm election, the vote could reshape the debate on the Hill. House members would no doubt feel more comfortable supporting a measure that has already received the support of the Senate. Alternatively, a positive Senate floor vote could add to House Republicans’ concerns that the Democrat-led Senate and the administration are setting up the proposal for failure in the House so Democrats can pin blame on House Republicans.

Rather than being a sign of such manipulation, the lack of details in the administration’s plan is more likely the result of hesitation and insufficient planning. Congress can choose to change both through continued discussion of Syria and calling for high-level hearings. The legislative calendar, the strength of ISIS, and the plight of the moderate armed Syrian opposition require that meaningful action to be taken soon. Will Congress seize the opportunity?

Jason T. Hunt is the Government Affairs Manager for the Washington DC Representative Office of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

Image: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey speaks along with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the Hart Senate Office building in Washington D.C. Sept. 3, 2013. (Photo: Flickr/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)