By By Christi Parsons and Tribune Washington Bureau
Jun 26, 2014 | 11:24 PM
— President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday for the first time to approve direct U.S. military training for Syrian rebels, but he remains deeply ambivalent about intervening in a deadly conflict that has spilled over into neighboring Iraq, U.S. officials said.
Obama asked for $500 million to "train and equip" opposition fighters in Syria who officials said will be "appropriately vetted" to ensure they have no ties to militant Islamic fighters fighting Bashar al Assad's regime.
The request, which would significantly expand the U.S. role in arming rebels in the region, comes as the al-Qaida-inspired group ISIL has spilled over the Syrian border and claimed large swaths of Iraq.
"This request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists like ISIL who find safe haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
The White House still believes that "there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria," she said.
The idea met with mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he supports "more aggressive" efforts to back Syrian rebels as long as the U.S. can ensure the recipients of that assistance are vetted, that they respect international law on human rights and that they have "reasonable accountability" for any weapons.
"The Syrian rebels who are fighting in opposition to President Assad are not made up of one singular, unified group with one clear leadership and command structure," Cardin said in a statement. "It is critical that the Assad regime is replaced by a moderate Syrian government that respects the international human rights of its citizens and is a responsible neighbor to US allies in the region."
The relatively modest funding request was greeted with skepticism by congressional advocates of a greater U.S. role in Syria. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Thursday that the president's request for funding will be irrelevant if he does not outline a coherent strategy.
"Do they want to reverse the momentum on the battlefield or do they want the status quo?" McCain asked. "There's no strategy. They're just coming over and asking for money."
Two senior U.S. officials said that the program will not begin until basic questions are resolved, such as whether the Pentagon has legal authority to train Syrian rebels, what types of weapons and other assistance they would receive, and who would get the training.
Those decisions could take months, the officials said.
"All that is yet to be worked out, assuming Congress passes it," said one of the officials. who asked not to be identified while discussing internal deliberations.
The request for funds was a "placeholder," meant to signal to lawmakers that the administration is considering stepped-up involvement at a time of growing concern in the region and in Congress that the U.S. is staying on the sidelines while instability in the region is spreading, the second official said.
If approved, the expenditure would be part of a regional stabilization initiative for which the administration is seeking $1.5 billion, and which would involve collaboration with Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The CIA has already been providing small-scale training to a limited number of Syrian rebels, but even if the training goes ahead, the Pentagon plan does not envision converting moderate rebel groups into a fighting force that is capable of winning back territory lost to the Assad regime and to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Islamic militant groups.
Rather, the training would be aimed at improving the U.S.-backed rebels' ability to hold the territory they now hold, in hopes of eventually producing a negotiated settlement to end the conflict, officials said.
The U.S. has supported training in Jordan for Syrian forces and supplied non-lethal equipment like transportation, medical equipment and night-vision goggles.
The neighboring countries receiving the tide of refugees have been flooded with American humanitarian assistance.
The promise of a flood of money from the U.S. may serve mainly as a vote of confidence, said one analyst.
"It's up to the players in the region to make things happen," said Gordon Adams, a foreign policy expert at the American University School of International Service and a former national security budget manager in the Clinton White House. "This is a symbolic emboldening of moderates in Syria.
"A lot of this is about reassurance."
Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.