Republican Lawmakers Divided Over Arming Syrian Rebels

Some call for American leadership. Other fear propping up an Islamist insurgency.

Opposition lawmakers in the United States appeared unified on Sunday when chastising President Barack Obama for describing Syrian chemical weapons use as a “red line” only not to follow up. But they disagreed about what American policy in Syria should be instead.

John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who has long urged the Obama Administration to expand its support for Syria’s rebels beyond “nonlethal” aid, lamented on the Fox News Sunday television program that the president’s “red line” was “apparently written in disappearing ink.”

The president said earlier this week that he believes chemical weapons were used in Syria’s two-year old civil war but doesn’t know yet “how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”

“Unfortunately,” said McCain, “President Obama will not act and that’s a tragedy because the massacre goes on and the use of heavier and heavier weapons and more massacres are taking place of the Syrian people.”

McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election and lost, argued against deploying troops to Syria but suggested that the United States could “establish a safe zone” where civilians might be sheltered from the violence and “supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in.”

Arkansas congressman Tom Cotton, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, similarly said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the United States should arm the “reform-minded” opposition. “I think we also need to move toward imposing a no-fly zone,” he said, “so Bashar al-Assad cannot continue to use helicopter gunships against civilians.”

Cotton’s New York colleague Peter King, who chairs the House of Representatives’ homeland security committee, seemed more cautious in an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union. He pointed out that religious fanatics “have a lot of control within the rebel movement.” If the United States arm Syrian opposition groups, they might end up “strengthening Al Qaeda,” the organization that carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or put it in a position to “take over this movement” once Assad is deposed.

In the absence of Western support, radical Islamist fighters have become the most effective in the Syrian opposition.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, American allies in the Middle East that seek to hasten Assad’s demise because he is the only Arab ally of their nemesis Iran, do appear to have provided weapons. The New York Times reported in October that most ended up in possession of the very jihadists the West abhors.

Republicans’ disagreement about Syrian policy reflects a broader debate within the party that has taken place and been left unresolved since the end of the George W. Bush Administration.

The second president Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after the 2001 terrorist attacks, considering both fronts in a global war on terror but also justifying especially the latter as a humanitarian intervention: to rid the country of a dictatorship.

National security hawks, or neoconservatives, like McCain still believe that the United States should use their military power to promote democracy and freedom abroad. He criticized the pullout from Iraq in 2011 and strongly supported American intervention in Libya that year when rebel forces were able to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi with Arab and Western air support.

On the other end of the spectrum are noninterventionists like Kentucky’s senator Rand Paul who argue that the United States have no special responsibility to protect other peoples from suppression and war.

His views seem more in line with those of the majority of Americans’ who have little enthusiasm anymore for overseas military adventurism after more than a decade of counterterrorism efforts, mostly in Muslim countries.

Only 10 percent of those surveyed in an online Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week agreed that the United States should become involved in the Syrian war. The number rose to 27 percent when asked if the country should intervene when Assad used chemical weapons.