The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday afternoon to approve President Obama’s request to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, passing the measure by a bipartisan vote of 273-156.
The measure, an amendment to the Continuing Resolution (CR) that keeps the government funded until Dec. 11, now heads to the Senate, which could vote to authorize Obama’s proposal as soon as Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Obama delivered an impassioned, pep rally-like speech to military personnel in Florida, where the president insisted again that the U.S. will not send ground troops to fight ISIS.
“I will not commit you and the rest of our forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the commander-in-chief said at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Earlier in the day, Obama was briefed on battle plans to strike ISIS in Iraq and possibly Syria by military commanders at U.S. Central Command.
Obama’s remarks come hours before the House of Representatives is expected to vote on his plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, also known as ISIL. They also come on the heels of an acknowledgement by Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that sending ground troops into Iraq isn’t completely out of the question.
The White House responded to Dempsey’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee by saying Dempsey was simply doing his job by providing a wide range of options for the president and there are no intentions for any U.S. ground troops to participate.
Obama, in Florida, also insisted that “this is not and will not be America’s fight alone.” He said, “After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures.”White House officials have said that “several” Arab countries have committed to carrying out airstrikes against ISIS, although officials would not identify which countries extended the offer.
On Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Obama’s declaration that U.S. troops deployed to Iraq will not have a combat mission there. He also spoke directly to a group of anti-war, Code Pink protesters who showed up to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
“I understand dissent. I’ve lived it. That’s how I first testified in front of this country in 1971,” said Kerry, referring to his testimony before the same committee as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War group. “… I respect the right of Code Pink to protest and use that right. But, you know what? I also know something about Code Pink. Code Pink was started by a woman and women who are opposed to war but who also thought the government’s job was to take care of people and to give them health care and education and good jobs. And if that’s what you believe in, and I believe it is, you ought to care about fighting ISIL. Because ISIL is killing and raping and mutilating women.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers continued their debate on arming Syrian rebels with both Democrats and Republicans sounding the alarm.
During a heated speech Wednesday on the Senate floor, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia described Obama’s strategy as “insanity.”
“The first principle of war is to know your enemy,” he said. “… It is equally important to know our allies and I am not confident we know who our allies are.” Manchin said he’s in favor of the recent U.S. airstrikes but prefers neighboring countries use their forces rather than arming the rebels.
“We have been at war in that part of the world for the last 13 years. If money and military might could make a difference, it would have by now,” added Manchin.
While leaders of both parties back Obama’s strategy to target ISIS, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists. Others want to take stronger actions and some are concerned about the U.S. getting embroiled in yet another war.
The Pentagon has said it wants to train 5,000 Syrian rebels in one year, something Republican Sen. John McCain took issue with during a Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. The Republican said there was no way to make sure the rebels would just take aim at ISIS when they’ve primarily focused on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the past. McCain wanted to know what the U.S would do if Assad’s air forces attacked the rebels the U.S. is training.
Hagel insisted America was focusing on ISIS and that such a situation was premature. McCain shot back, “You don’t think that the Free Syrian Army is going to fight against Bashar Assad, who has been decimating them?” McCain declared it was a “fundamental fallacy” to assume the U.S. can train the rebels to fight ISIS but not Assad.
At a weekly briefing on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – who was against the Iraq War – said that while she’s in favor of Obama’s plan, “it’s not a whip operation. Members will do what members are comfortable of doing.” House Speaker John Boehner said Obama’s request is “a sound one,” but added, “I think there is a lot more we need to be doing, but there is no reason for us not to do what the president asked us.”
The U.S. is increasing its airstrikes in Iraq, which Obama authorized. CENTCOM announced on Tuesday that the American military conducted five airstrikes in the country on Monday and Tuesday, including three strikes southwest of Baghdad. The strikes in Baghdad are the first the U.S. has taken as part of the expanded efforts to destroy ISIS. CENCOM has launched a total of 167 airstrikes – hitting ISIS trucks, anti-aircraft artillery pieces, ground units and boats – in Iraq since the U.S. intervened on Aug. 7.
Federal Bureau of Investigations Director James Comey and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified in front of the Committee on Homeland Security on Wednesday morning shortly after ISIS released another propaganda video , in which the terrorist group appears to threaten U.S. troops and the White House. Johnson said that while there is no credible information that ISIS is planning an attack on the U.S. “that is not, by any means, the end of the story.”
ISIS, said Johnson, “has the elements of both a terrorist organization and an insurgent army. It kills innocent civilians and has seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, which it can utilize for safe haven, training, command and control, and from which it can launch attacks…Its public message and social media are as slick and as effective as any I’ve ever seen from a terrorist organization.”
Johnson pointed to a number of initiatives DHS is taking, including enhancing aviation security and making greater efforts to track Syrian foreign fighters.
Additional hearings on ISIS will dominate this week on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Kerry – who has been traveling in the Middle East trying to encourage Arab allies to join the global coalition to fight ISIS, will testify again, this time in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Hagel will appear before the House Armed Services Committee. On Friday, Kerry will be in New York to chair a ministerial debate on Iraq at the United Nations Security Council.