US SECRETARY of Defense Chuck Hagel (left) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testify yesterday during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on US policy toward Iraq and Syria..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Congress will likely approve US President Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels this week, after delaying a vote on the matter since May.
The plan provides the Obama administration with $500 million to train and equip vetted rebels fighting against both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Islamic State, the terrorist organization that Obama has vowed to destroy.
The Pentagon seeks an established force to work in conjunction with American air power, holding ground cleared by its air strikes, similar to operations successfully executed since July against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq with Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to host “train and equip” camps for the rebels, and to help finance the effort.
But the bill under consideration in the Republican-held House of Representatives would expire in December.
New spending would have to be approved at that time.
And the bill does not provide the White House with a new authorization for the use of force in Syria, which some members of Congress have argued is a constitutional requirement for a new air campaign.
Congress is also demanding written updates from the administration on its plans 15 days before implementation, and progress reports every 90 days.
Before the Congress vote, US Secretary of State John Kerry will testify on Thursday on the threat Islamic State poses to the US homeland, following testimony from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on Tuesday.
“This won’t look like a ‘shock and awe’ campaign, because that’s simply not how ISIL [Islamic State] is organized,” said Dempsey, referring to the air assault on Baghdad that opened the Iraq War in 2003. “But it will be a persistent and sustainable campaign.”
Dempsey said he was prepared to advise the president on adding ground troops to the fight in Iraq “to provide close combat advising,” despite Obama’s insistence that the operation would not include US personnel in combat roles.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post
whether the president would consider such advice as given, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the scenario was still “hypothetical.”
Expanding its operation in Iraq, now with a wider mandate from its commander-in-chief, US Central Command struck Islamic State targets outside of Baghdad on Monday.
“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions,” Central Command, based in Doha, said in a statement.
The US has conducted roughly 160 strikes in Iraq over two months.
Eyewitness reports from Raqqa, Islamic State’s nominal capital in Syria, suggest that the group has burrowed underground and among residential areas since Obama threatened strikes against them “wherever they are” on September 11.
Online activity by Islamic State activists has also subsided, according to experts. The group has broadly used social media in its efforts to recruit men to its ranks.
“We need to assume that there will be a cyber dimension increasingly in almost any scenario that we’re dealing with,” said Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, at a cybersecurity conference in Washington on Tuesday.
“Counterterrorism is no different,” he said. “Clearly, ISIL has been very aggressive in the use of media, in the use of technology, in the use of the Internet. It’s something I’m watching.”
Conservative lawmakers are warning that the country’s porous border with Mexico provides Islamic State operatives with easy entry into the US, though the Obama administration denies any evidence of this.
“There is no credible intelligence indicating that,” one State Department official told the Post.
But fear of terrorist attacks against the West continues to grow steadily throughout Europe and the United States, as intelligence estimates have increased the suspected number of Islamic State followers from 10,000 to nearly 30,000 in a matter of weeks.
On Tuesday, Iraq’s envoy to the Holy See said credible evidence suggested a plan by Islamic State leadership to assassinate the pope.
“What has been declared by the self-declared Islamic State is clear – they want to kill the pope,” Ambassador Habeeb al-Sadr told a local Italian publication, La Nazione. “I believe they could try to kill him during one of his overseas trips, or even Rome.”
Pope Francis plans on traveling to Albania this week, and Turkey in November.