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Senate votes to arm, train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS

The green light from Congress is a significant policy win for Obama, who is grappling with escalating crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

The Senate on Thursday approved President Obama’s controversial proposal to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in effort to defeat the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Senators passed the legislation with 78 to 22 votes. It now goes to Obama to sign into law.

"I want to thank leaders in Congress for the speed and seriousness with which they approached this issue," Obama said in brief remarks Thursday evening after the Senate vote.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel echoed the president's sentiments and added that "While it will take time to strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition forces, they and the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish forces are central to confronting ISIL. The U.S. military will work closely with regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, to recruit and vet the opposition forces, and we will continue to build and sustain a broad coalition to implement our strategy."

PHOTO ESSAY: Syria’s tragic descent

Sen. Harry Reid also lauded the bipartisan action. "Today, Democrats and Republicans spoke with one voice to tell the ISIS terrorists: we will find you and destroy you," he said in a statement. "The Senate has passed a strong bill to arm and train vetted Syrian opposition fighters as part of the President's strategy to destroy ISIS without repeating the mistakes of the past in the Middle East. America will lead a coalition that includes our friends and allies in European and Arab nations in a targeted, strategic mission to destroy ISIS."

On Wednesday, the Republican-led House voted in favor of the measure by a 273 to 156 vote, with significant opposition from both parties — 71 Republicans and 85 Democrats voted against it.

Nonetheless, the green light from Congress is being viewed as a significant foreign policy win for Obama, something the president desperately needs at a time when polls show Americans broadly disapproving of his handling of foreign affairs as the administration grapples with escalating crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

The measure, which includes no new money to pay for the operation, was part of a larger spending bill that will fund the U.S. government through Dec. 11 and avoid a partial government shutdown.

While lawmakers agree that ISIS is a threat to America, several on both sides of the political aisle have expressed concerns that weapons given to the rebels could end up in the hands of terrorists. Others say Obama’s plans do not go far enough while some are concerned about the U.S. getting embroiled in yet another war.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called the plan “ludicrous” on the Senate floor before the vote. “No one knows where these arms are going to wind up ... We don’t even know who these groups are.”  Paul — known for his non-interventionist approach — said "we need to stay the heck out of their civil war ... It is their war and they need to fight it."

During a heated speech Wednesday on the Senate floor, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he would vote against Obama's request and described the commander-in-chief'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." While he’s in favor of the recent U.S. airstrikes, Manchin 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.

Party leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have all backed the plan.

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on the Senate floor on Thursday that he too would vote in favor of arming the rebels. He argued the plan is completely different from when Congress in 2002 voted to authorize military action in Iraq, something Levin voted against.

Unlike 12 years ago, Levin pointed out that the Iraqi government has requested western assistance to battle ISIS and that today there is participation from key Arab countries, and that the ground operation will not be undertaken by the U.S., but by Iraqis, Kurds and Syrians.

Levin said it will be a “long and a hard” struggle but “we should give it our support.” He added, “We cannot take the place of Iraqis and Syrians. They must purge the position that they have in their countries ... but we can help these people get rid of this poison.”

Congress will adjourn this week to go home and campaign for the midterm elections and will not come back to D.C. until Nov. 12.

Last week, Obama laid out a four-pronged strategy to defeat ISIS, including increased support to anti-ISIS forces on the ground (ruling out U.S. combat troops), a systematic campaign of airstrikes, improving efforts to cut off ISIS funding and recruiting and continued humanitarian assistance to ISIS victims.

The U.S. has already engaged in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. U.S. Central Command announced on Thursday that it conducted two airstrikes in Iraq on Wednesday and Thursday. Those attacks destroyed an ISIS armed vehicle, two ISIS-occupied buildings, an ammunition stockpile and a large ground unit. CENTCOM said it has launched a total of 176 airstrikes in Iraq since the U.S. intervened on Aug. 7.

Despite an acknowledgement on Tuesday by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey that sending U.S. ground troops into Iraq isn’t out of the question, Obama insisted on Wednesday that U.S. troops won’t have a combat role in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Australian police on Thursday thwarted an alleged ISIS plot to stage random attacks on the public. Shortly afterward, ISIS released a chilling new video featuring a British man who is believed to be held captive by the terrorist group.