How Obama Walked Boehner and GOP Leadership Off the Syrian Rebel Cliff
One of the last acts Congress undertook before leaving Washington, D.C., in September for the midterm election break was to add $500 million in new funding to arm and train the so-called "vetted moderate" Syrian rebels. The $500 million in funding had been an agenda item for Obama since June, when ISIS began making quick gains in an offensive push back into Iraq.
But the political net effect of this vote was to get the GOP leadership in Congress to publicly buy into Obama's rapidly crumbling Syria policy. Led by Boehner in the House and McConnell in the Senate, the congressional GOP leadership allowed Obama to walk them off the Syrian rebel cliff.
As I reported here at PJ Media yesterday, the most important "vetted moderate" rebel groups are in retreat, having surrendered or defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria.
This development should come as no surprise to any member of the congressional GOP. In the week before the rebel amendment funding vote, I was asked to brief a number of GOP members and prepared a presentation on the collapse of the U.S.-backed Syria rebels that was widely circulated amongst both the House and Senate GOP conferences.
Among the chief trends I noted in these briefings -- and that I was concurrently reporting on here -- was that large groups of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units were defecting to al-Qaeda and ISIS, surrendering their U.S.-provided weapons along the way, and that other FSA units were forging peace deals and fighting alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS in some areas.
Even before the votes on the rebel funding, there was growing evidence that these "vetted moderate" forces were not moderate at all, and certainly would provide little assistance in fighting against ISIS.
Obama was hinting at where his policy was headed, too. Just a month before those congressional votes, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Obama said that the belief that arming the Syrian rebels would have changed the situation had "always been a fantasy":
With “respect to Syria,” said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”
Again, this was more than a month before congressional GOP leadership took up the cause of sending $500 million more to the Syrian rebels, even though there were reports that the FSA had already lost at least $500 million in arms to ISIS and other jihadist groups.
GOP leaders also bought in on another highly controversial element to Obama's Syrian rebel policy. In September 2013, it was reported that Obama had signed a waiver circumventing a federal law intended to prohibit aid from going to terrorist groups. But when GOP leadership rolled out their amendment to fund the "vetted moderate" Syrian rebels, it contained hardly any substantial limits to Obama's waiver policy.
In order to pass the amendment in the House, Boehner and GOP leadership had to buck considerable resistance from their own party and join with House Democrats to pass the amendment. The September 17 vote was 273-156, with 71 Republicans voting against the amendment.
And yet even more House Democrats -- 85 in all -- voted against the funding amendment, giving them cover for the upcoming midterm elections.
The 78-22 vote in the Senate also received support from Senate GOP leadership, with notable Senate Republicans voting against the measure, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
Congress had barely left Washington, D.C., for the break before events would demonstrate the GOP leaders buying into Obama's policy was a fool's errand. As U.S. airstrikes began hitting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra positions, the attacks were widely condemned by the same "vetted moderate" groups that Congress had just approved another $500 million for.
At the same time, the Obama administration began to quickly back away from the rebels that congressional GOP leadership had now jumped into bed with. A week after the House amendment vote, administration officials began complaining that there were no reliable partners on the ground in Syria. A few weeks later, the administration leaked a CIA assessment of past funding of rebel groups that found such aid as Congress had just approved rarely works.
The coup de grâce came less than a month after the House vote. Obama's envoy trying to build the anti-ISIS coalition, retired Marine General John Allen, told reporters that the administration was ditching the FSA. Now, two weeks later, the FSA is near collapse.
The only successful move of Obama's disastrous Syria policy was to get the GOP leadership in Congress to buy into it at the last minute.
So how could GOP leaders be so easily duped?
1) The absence of a coherent GOP foreign policy. Republicans in Congress are torn by two opposing foreign policy poles: on one side is John McCain's "war at any price" caucus, and on the other is Rand Paul's neo-isolationist "pull up the drawbridge" approach. The McCain position has blindly given a blank check to the administration's military misadventures (e.g. Libya, et al.), and the Paulian approach flies in the face of reality -- there is no drawbridge to pull up anymore in our global society, and the growing threats to America's interests overseas are growing rapidly.
2) "We've got to do something!" When I talked to members and staff, this was a recurring theme. GOP leaders during the debate over the amendment used this as a bludgeon against the amendment's detractors. But without American boots on the ground, which no one in Congress was going to support weeks before midterm elections, there's little the U.S. can do to directly change events on the ground. Even the airstrikes targeting ISIS are having a very limited effect. And less than a month after GOP leaders were publicly castigating their own members for not falling into line, the administration was abandoning the very position they had just embraced.
3) Congress is reliant on the administration for all their information. This is a recurring problem on the Hill. Congress has few means to vet the information the administration gives them, or to know if information is being withheld.
When I briefed members during that week prior to the rebel amendment vote, particularly those sitting on committees that had national security responsibilities, very few were aware of the ongoing difficulties of the defections, peace deals, and alliances with jihadist groups that the U.S.-armed and trained "vetted moderate" groups were engaged in. I've previously said that Congress needs to revive something along the lines of the House Task Force on Unconventional Warfare and Terrorism that gave them a back door to the SPECOPS world and intelligence community to be better informed regardless of what party controls the White House.
The midterm elections tomorrow might rearrange the chairs on the Hill come January, but the GOP leadership problems demonstrated by the rebel funding this past September are likely to remain.
Even worse, rushing the Syrian rebel funding through at the last minute meant there was no serious discussion of the growing national security threats metastasizing in Syria and Iraq and on what Congress intended to do. By buying into Obama's rebel funding proposal, they allowed Obama to walked them over the cliff just as he was stepping back from it. Pure amateur hour.
By the time the new Congress convenes in January, events could transpire in the Middle East that will require Congress and leaders of both parties to make choices more difficult than throwing $500 million at the problem. By then, the situation could be more stark than anyone now realizes.