The American Ambassador to Syria told a Senate committee on Thursday that it is vital that the United States support “moderate” Syrian rebels battling extremists who are also opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Extremist Syrian rebel groups with ties to al Qaeda and other terrorists — such as Jahbat al-Nusra — have emerged as some of the best trained, organized and equipped forces fighting Syrian government troops and some are concerned that their prominence in Syria could tip the country toward a more extremist-oriented government should Assad’s regime fall.
For this reason, U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon that “it is very important that we weigh in on behalf” of the moderate forces, such as factions of the more secular and democratic Free Syrian Army. That’s why, Ford added, the Obama administration is providing non-lethal aid to vetted rebels.
But the U.S. ambassador stopped short of advocating military assistance. Ford said the U.S. strategic goals in Syria are to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of extremist groups, disallow Syria as a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies and to assure that Syria is a source of stability in the region. “We do not think that this can be achieved without a political, negotiated transition,” Ford said.
Later in the hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) lashed out at Ford after the ambassador could not say whether the U.S. has the military capability to enact a no-fly zone in Syria. “I’m an economist, not a military strategist,” Ford said.
“Wait a minute — you’re supposed to know the situation on the ground,” said McCain, according to the Hill. “You were the ambassador there. If anybody is supposed to know what’s going on in Syria, it’s you.” The Arizona Republican said Syrian rebels he has met are “angry and bitter” at the Obama administration’s refusal to provide arms to the rebels.
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said the U.S. should start moving toward providing such assistance. “In my view, looking at the situation as it exists, the time has come to consider providing military aid to the opposition.”
The White House has been so-far reluctant to provide offensive military hardware to the Syrian rebels. But the administration will reportedly send body armor and night vision goggles to those fighting Assad’s forces, but those reports have yet to be confirmed.
“Our assistance has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can increase assistance,” a senior administration official told the New York Times.