Last Thursday, Congress approved a measure giving President Barack Obama broad authority to train and arm Syrian rebel groups to oppose the Islamic State (IS). As politicians enter the thick of campaign season in the lead up to midterms, many doubted they would vote to approve any such action; the president would be forced to go it alone using the already expansive reach of the executive branch in foreign affairs. The vote came after Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) tacked an amendment on to a much larger bill that keeps the government running through mid-December, putting added pressure on legislators to lend it their support.
House Joint Resolution 124 passed Congress last Wednesday, 319 to 108. The margin of victory was atypical for the 113th Congress, far from the usual party line voting. 176 Republicans and 143 Democrats voted affirmative, with an almost even 53 Republicans and 55 Democrats dissenting. A day later, in the Senate, a similar case played out. 78 voted aye (44 Democrats; 33 Republicans; one Independent) and 22 opposed the measure (9 Democrats; 12 Republicans; one Independent). The heated partisanship gave way to a disagreement between those who advocate intervention and those who believe such intervention will likely come with too great a cost.
Disagreement was also on display between Alaska’s delegation. Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) supported the president’s request while Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) vocally dissented.
”Do not arm with U.S. dollars and weapons the rebels of today who might not be the rebels of tomorrow,” Begich said on the Senate floor. He said other actors in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, needed to put boots on the ground before the U.S. waded into a civil war. “They need to step up to the plate.”
When pondering aloud the possible option of U.S. combat troops, he smacked the podium with his index finger. “Absolutely not,” Begich said forcefully. “Absolutely not.”
Dan Sullivan, vying to unseat Begich, said he supported the president’s plan. “Saying no to everything is not foreign policy,” he said in a press release.
What Did Congress Just Approve?
The bill passed by Congress authorized the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to: 
[P]rovide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals for the following purposes: Defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and securing territory controlled by the Syrian opposition. Protecting the United States, its friends and allies, and the Syrian people from the threats posed by terrorists in Syria. Promoting the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.
The measure also requires the president to update Congress with progress reports, sent to the Committee on Armed Services, the Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee on Appropriations, and the Select Committee on Intelligence of the Senate.
The tricky part is figuring out who to fund, how to train them, and whether any of that will lend favorably to President Obama’s ultimate stated goal of “[destroying] ISIL without having our troops fight another ground war in the Middle East.”
Over the past year, IS has swept across Iraq and Syria, seizing dozens of towns. Their goal is to create exactly what their name suggests: an Islamic state; a caliphate with ultimate religious authority over all Muslims worldwide. However, their brutal tactics of acquiring such a status (the United Nations has accused IS of committing “mass atrocities” and war crimes; Amnesty International has accused IS of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims, creating “blood-soaked killing fields”) has made a lot of enemies, including terror groups like Al-Qaeda, the al-Nusrah Front, and Hezbollah — none of which can be described as “moderate Syrian rebels.”
U.S. involvement began in July, when roughly 800 American troops acted to defend military installations in Baghdad and Erbil. In August, the mission expanded, with over a hundred additional military personal sent to bolster security in Northern Iraq in support of Kurdish allies. The same month, the U.S. began airstrikes against IS at Mosul dam in Northern Iraq. A subsequent humanitarian mission was launched to assist Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar. Both were in response to the massacring of 80 Yazidis in the village of Kocho by IS. The men were shot and killed in front of the women and children, who were reportedly then taken hostage.
IS has since killed two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and U.S. public opinion has shifted radically from war fatigue to support for military action. A recent poll found that 63 percent of Americans back a Pentagon strike against IS.
Will the Plan Passed by Congress Work?
Sure. As soon as you find a moderate Syrian rebel to serve as our combat troops on the ground.
He’s hiding behind the unicorn.
The plan approved last week by Congress is hinged upon finding “appropriately vetted Syrian groups” to train, arm, and use as combat troops on the ground. We’ve got your back, with our flying killer robots.
As Vice News correspondent Molly Crabapple told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last week, “The term ‘moderate rebel’ is, first, meaningless and second Islamaphobic. There are all sorts of groups of varying degrees of religiosity or of secularism. But I think what’s important is not how long their beards are. What’s important is whether they respect human rights and whether or not they’ve committed war crimes.”
Crabapple described a fractured group of rebel groups with the common goal, in Syria, of toppling the Assad regime — and not many other areas of agreement. She noted that some of the most furious fighting against IS came from Al-Qeada and the al-Nusrah Front. Groups that wouldn’t make it very far during any U.S. vetting.
This is what’s most troubling and most delusional about what Obama is saying. You have a group of people who for three and a half years have fought the most brutal, bloody, civil war. To have a revolution against their government. And Obama thinks that with a small cash infusion he can turn them into his special proxy army to fight his war.
“Not only are you you helping to push Islamic State back, but everyone there is now serving their own agenda as well,” Al Jazeera Fault Lines correspondent Josh Rushing told Real Money’s Ali Velshi on Friday. “So, any influence the U.S. is applying here, they’re applying to all those agendas. So, if you have an agenda like the League of the Righteous — this is an Iranian-backed militia group. The U.S. is using airstrikes supporting them moving forward through villages. But what else are they doing? They’re ethnically cleansing it. They’re killing Arab families.”
The Rationale of Alaska’s Delegation.
The threat IS posed to America’s Kurdish allies in Northern Iraq, exacerbated by the Yazidi massacre forced U.S. involvement. This is Iraq, where over a decade ago we decided to invade, dismantle the existing regime and government, and roll the dice building a new one. Unfortunately, in doing so we destabilized the region. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his then-Deputy Paul Wolfowitz, as part of their occupation and democratization process, instituted a policy of de-Ba’athification; removing Ba’ath Party members from the public sector entirely. This included a huge contingent of Sadam Hussein’s military.
Now, they’re fighting for IS. The CIA estimates that terrorist-army hybrid to be around 30,000 troops, but other estimates peak at around 50,000. The targeted assassinations of western hostages and threats of impending attacks on the U.S. and our allies puts pressure on our elected officials to do something.
Domestic threats weighed heavily on Rep. Young, who explained in a press release after the House voted last week:
I fundamentally believe that ISIL is a determined and serious threat to the United States and the freedoms we often take for granted. They are unlike most terrorist organizations in the region and have the most funding, best training, and most capable equipment of any threat we’ve previously seen. More importantly, there are numerous ISIL fighters that hold Western passports, including more than 100 American citizens. These people and the extremists they fight for pose a direct threat to our nation’s security and we must decisively act to protect our nation.
“There are no good options,” Sen. Murkowski said in a press release, explaining her vote for expanded military action. “While I continue to have my doubts, a limited authority to equip and train the moderate factions in Syria against these Islamic extremists is among the least bad options, and I am encouraged that today’s bill contains some tangible short-term reporting requirements.”
Begich, in turn, disagreed. While many were surprised at his stance against Obama’s prescription — especially in an election year — it is consistent with his record. He also opposed military action in Libya in 2011, and against Syria last year.
His reasons last year are similar to this year, and still serve as a legitimate criticism of the $500 million measure passed last week. “First, this has to be an international effort, which includes Russia and China,” he said in 2013. “They need to be a part of dealing with this international law violation.”
Russia and China, who have strong economic and diplomatic ties with Syria, weren’t on board. Ultimately, neither were the American people. (One has to ponder soberly what might have happened had Assad murdered a couple of our journalists back then.) Begich, again, is calling on the international community to “step up to the plate,” as he said on the Senate floor before last week’s vote. Saudi Arabia, whose military is three times the size of the CIA’s estimate of IS, suffers a much more immediate threat from IS. But Saudi Arabia thus far is only partnering to the extent that they will permit the “moderate Syrian rebels” to train there. Turkey, which borders both Syria and Iraq and has had its citizens taken hostage by IS, has an army with a total strength of 360,000, but has wavered in support against the group. Egypt would also be a helpful partner, but has limited its involvement to logistical and intelligence support.
Without the immediate, substantive assistance of actors in the region, Begich believes military action will result in American combat troops, which he says he will continue to oppose.
Meanwhile, airstrikes continue. France conducted its first airstrike on Friday, destroying a logistics depot, making them the first actionable partner in the United States’ expanded campaign against IS.
“I think this is where the game gets really complicated,” Fault Lines correspondent Rushing said on Friday. “The airstrikes are game changers. I wonder if the U.S. is fully cognizant of what game they’re changing.”