WASHINGTON — In a rare display of bipartisanship, two senators are calling for the U.S. to send aid such as body armor and communications gear to anti-government forces in Syria.
Crafted by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and unveiled Tuesday, the bill would “encourage” U.S. officials to build a plan to secure stockpiles of chemical weapons inside Syria. And during a brief news conference on Capitol Hill, the duo did not unequivocally rule out the need for U.S. personnel to conduct that kind of complex operation.
“It is in the United States’ interest that [Bashar] al-Assad should go,” Rubio told reporters, referring to Syria’s embattled president. That’s because Assad has been “right in the middle of” every major terrorist threat facing the U.S., the potential 2016 presidential hopeful added.
A summary of the “Syria Democratic Transition Act of 2013” obtained by Defense News states the legislation would “assist vetted elements of the opposition by authorizing the provision of non-lethal equipment and training on human rights and the international law of war.”
During remarks to reporters, Casey stressed that any assistance Washington provides rebel forces must go only to those fighters who have been “heavily vetted” by U.S. officials.
Casey pointed only to aid such as body armor and communications equipment as the kinds of gear the U.S. might funnel to opposition forces.
Other U.S. lawmakers have made similar pleas in the past. It remains unclear how much defense firms might stand to profit if such gear were ordered for Syria’s anti-government fighters.
Amid media reports alleging that rebel forces — not Assad’s military — have recently used chemical weapons in the three-year-old civil war that humanitarian organizations say has claimed 70,000 lives, the senators want a plan to secure those arms.
Their legislation focuses on “weapons that are particularly dangerous: chemical weapons,” Casey said. We want to make sure that we are securing and destroying those weapons. That involves a plan that our government would do and enunciate. That, of course, comes with training and equipment.”
The Casey-Rubio bill “encourages the U.S. to develop a plan to identify and secure all weapons stockpiles, recover and dispose of all non-conventional weapons, and prevent the illicit sale or transfer of weapons out of Syria,” states the summary of the bill.
Some analysts and lawmakers, however, say such a complicated mission would require U.S. personnel — perhaps special operations forces or CIA paramilitary personnel.
Casey and Rubio did not rule that out when asked by Defense News if inserting U.S. personnel would be necessary.
“I think that the mechanics of that we’ve got to leave to our national security experts on how to do that,” Casey said. “We just want to provide the authority and the capacity for the administration and others to be able to play a constructive role on getting those weapons secured so that we can prevent the proliferation of them and their availability to terrorists.”
The goal is to “provide a pathway” on securing the chemical weapons, Casey said. He was unable to tell a reporter what nation’s forces might move in to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria if U.S. personnel were not used.
Finally, the bill would “expand sanctions against the Central Bank of Syria,” aiming to deliver what Casey and Rubio cast as a possible final monetary blow that could hit Assad so hard financially that he would be forced to step down.