US lawmaker urges lethal aid to Syrian rebels


Sun, Mar 17, 2013 - Page 7

The top Democrat on the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs is calling on US President Barack Obama’s administration to train and arm select elements of the Syrian opposition as well as provide humanitarian assistance as the deadly civil war marked a second anniversary on Friday.

“It is past time to stop the madness in Syria,” Representative Eliot Engel wrote to colleagues in seeking support for legislation to aid the rebels battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The lawmaker, who plans to introduce his bill tomorrow, cited the estimated 70,000 Syrians killed and more than 1 million refugees.

His legislation would provide economic assistance to local groups supporting the opposition, expand humanitarian assistance and authorize the training and arming of vetted Syrian opposition fighters.

“US training and arming of carefully vetted Syrian opposition forces offer many potential benefits, but two stand out above all: Bringing the humanitarian disaster to an end as soon as possible and helping ensure that the US has a constructive relationship with a successor government in Damascus that pursues development, democracy and peace with its neighbors and rejects the regionally destabilizing influence of Iran and Hezbollah,” Engel wrote.

Engel’s move gives fresh impetus to the demands by some in US Congress for greater US involvement to end the bloodshed, and it comes just days before Obama’s trip to the Middle East.

So far, only a few Republican lawmakers, led by senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have demanded greater military action such as air strikes and arming the rebels.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced at a conference in Rome last month a US$60 million package of nonlethal assistance, the first direct help to the opposition forces trying to overthrow al-Assad.

The US State Department said on Wednesday that it has yet to begin shipping the meals and medical supplies to the armed opposition, as it was still in talks with the Free Syrian Army.