FPI Analysis: Senators to Debate Arming Syrian Rebels—What to Expect

May 20, 2013

As the conflict in Syria continues to escalate, Senate lawmakers are set tomorrow to debate new legislation that would allow U.S. military assistance to vetted Syrian rebels, authorize the imposition of new sanctions on sellers of arms and oil to the Assad regime, and create a $250 million transition fund for post-Assad Syria.

On May 21, 2013, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will deliberate and possibly vote on the Syria Transition Support Act of 2013 (S. 960), a bipartisan bill introduced by the Committee’s Chairman, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and its Ranking Member, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN).  Given the range of views among Committee members—ranging from Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Robert Casey (D-PA), who have urged the Obama administration to consider using U.S. airpower to negate the Assad regime’s air power and to establish safe zones within Syria for refugees and rebels, to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who advocates non-interventionism—Hill watchers should expect a heated debate over the bill and possible amendments.

Key Provisions in the Menendez-Corker Bill

At the outset, it is important to note that the Syria Transition Support Act expressly states that “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed as providing authorization for the use of military force by the United States Armed Forces.”  That said, the legislation—as introduced by Senators Menendez and Corker—seeks to:

Boost support to Syrian rebels.  The Syria Transition Support Act’s Title V would empower the United States not only to give more non-lethal assistance, but also to start providing lethal assistance, to vetted elements of Syria’s internal armed opposition.  Section 501 of the bill states:

“…the President is authorized, notwithstanding any other provision of law that restrict military, non-military, or economic assistance to Syria, to provide defense articles, defense services, and military training to specific members of the Syrian Supreme Military Council, particular units of the Free Syrian Army, and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, with funds made available for foreign assistance.”

In specifying the 30-member Supreme Military Council (SMC), also known as the Supreme Military Command, as a candidate to receive lethal assistance, the Menendez-Corker bill refers to a body established by some 500 representatives from the Free Syrian Army and aligned internal armed opposition groups in December 2012.  The SMC is led by Brigadier General Salim Idriss, a high-profile defector from the Assad regime’s military who serves as the body’s chief of staff.  In a March 2013 report, the Institute for the Study of War’s Elizabeth O’Bagy described the uniquely “bottom-up” legitimacy of the body:  “The SMC includes all of Syria’s most important opposition field commanders, and its authority is based on the power and influence of these rebel leaders.”  As Ambassador Robert Ford, the recalled U.S. envoy to Damascus who is now helping to craft Syria policy in the State Department, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2013:  “Supreme Military Council (SMC) Chief of Staff General Idriss and those under his command have demonstrated a commitment to a tolerant and inclusive vision of Syria.”

The Menendez-Corker bill would require the President to certify to Congress—at least 15 days before providing any lethal assistance to any Syrian armed opposition group—that “based on the information available to the United States Government” the specific elements receiving U.S.-origin lethal assistance (a) have not been designated or are not affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) as defined by U.S. law, (b) reject terrorism and extremism, (c) oppose revenge killings or sectarian violence, (d) are committed to the rule of law in Syria and civilian control of military forces, (e) will cooperate to combat international terrorism and weapons proliferation, and (f) support regional stability and peace with neighboring countries.

While the Syria Transition Support Act expressly restricts the transfer of anti-aircraft defensive systems to Syrian armed opposition groups, it would permit the President to waive this restriction on national security grounds, if he certifies to Congress that either (a) anti-aircraft defense systems transferred to Syrian rebels can be tracked or remotely disabled, or (b) their end-use can be effectively monitored by the United States.

The Menendez-Corker bill’s measures to arm Syrian rebels are comparable to provisions in the Free Syria Act of 2013 (H.R. 1327), which Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI), Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), and Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), Ranking Member of HFAC’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade (HFAC-TNT), introduced on March 21, 2013.  One key difference, however, is that if the President moves to provide lethal military assistance to vetted Syrian armed opposition groups, then H.R. 1327 would require a more generally-worded presidential certification that “defense articles, defense services, and military education and training” provided “are consistent with the maintenance of regional stability and with overall security and stability of neighboring friends and allies.”

Impose new sanctions on sales of arms and oil to the Assad regime.  Title IV of the Menendez-Corker bill empowers the President to punish foreign persons or entities (e.g., Russian or Iranian officials and companies) whom he determines have “knowingly participated in or facilitated a significant transaction related to the sale, transfer, or transportation of defense articles, defense services, or military training” or “to the sale or transfer of petroleum or petroleum products” to the Assad regime on or after the bill’s enactment into law.  The legislation permits the President to impose a variety of sanctions, ranging from blocking any U.S.-based property or interests, denying visas, terminating the planned transfer of U.S.-controlled military or dual-use items, or other actions.  The bill also provides the President with the authority to waive these sanctions on national security or humanitarian grounds.

The Syria Transition Support Act’s measures to impose sanctions on arms and oil transfers to the Assad regime build on comparable provisions in the Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013 (S. 617), which Senator Robert Casey, Chairman of the SFRC’s Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who sits on both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced on March 19, 2013.  In fact, it expands upon that bill, which focused on imposing sanctions targeting persons or entities that conduct only “significant arms sales” to the Assad regime through the Central Bank of Syria or other sanctioned Syrian financial institutions.

Create a $250 million post-Assad transition fund for Syria drawn from funds otherwise appropriated for transition support in the Middle East.  Title III of the Menendez-Corker bill would authorize the President to establish a Syria Transition Fund (STF) for economic and non-military assistance “to provide support in the early transition period to enable an effective political transition to a more democratic and inclusive political structure and provide for initiatives that will improve the security” of not only the Syrian people, but also the United States and its partners.  The legislation permits a broad range of STF programs, including those to help post-Assad Syria better respect and enforce the impartial rule of law; stem the flow of foreign fighters, arms, and chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction out of Syria; and collect evidence of unlawful attacks or other targeting of civilian populations.  While Title III authorizes the STF to have as much as $250 million in funds annually, it requires that this money come from funds already appropriated for political and economic transition in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Syria Transition Support Act’s measures to create a Syria Transition Fund build on comparable provisions in Senator Casey and Rubio’s Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013.

Other Provisions in the Menendez-Corker Bill

Like earlier Syria bills introduced in the 113th Congress, the Menendez-Corker bill also seeks to boost humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.  But the Syria Transition Support Act goes further, directing the Secretary of State to report to Congress on how to maximize the effectiveness of humanitarian aid to Syria, ensure the Syrian people’s awareness of the size and scope of the aid, and use the aid to increase the Syrian opposition’s credibility and legitimacy among the Syrian people.

In addition, the legislation would require the Secretary of State to report to Congress on the Obama administration’s strategy to hasten the emergence of a democratic and moderate post-Assad Syria, and the President to brief Congress on U.S. activities related to Syria at least on a quarterly basis.


Efforts by Senate lawmakers to advance Syria legislation are timely, given the reported success of the Assad-regime’s latest attacks against rebel-held territory and growing uncertainty over President Obama’s renewed diplomatic initiatives to resolve the conflict.

Although the Obama administration is working to organize negotiations in Geneva next month, the prospect for serious Syrian peace talks appears increasingly bleak.  As The New York Times reported today, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad gave a rare interview to an Argentine newspaper this weekend, declaring that his government will not negotiate with the armed opposition, whom he described as terrorists: 

“We are willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk, without exceptions….  But that does not include terrorists; no state talks to terrorists. When they put down their arms and join the dialogue, then we will have no objections. Believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unreal.”

What’s more, the Executive Branch and the U.S. military criticized Vladimir Putin’s government last Friday for surging Russian warships near Syrian waters, providing the Assad regime with sophisticated anti-ship missiles, and still refusing to cancel the planned transfer of advanced S-300 long-range air defense missiles.  Indeed, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Russia’s actions would “embolden” the Assad regime, adding:  “it’s ill-timed and very unfortunate.” 

Even if the Syria Transition Support Act of 2013 is approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is uncertain whether Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will allow the full Senate to consider any Syria-related legislation in the near future.  Still, the Committee’s debate and possible action on Senators Menendez and Corker’s bill to support vetted Syrian rebels is a critical opportunity to send an important message about the preponderant views of the Senate’s leaders on international affairs.

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