US lawmaker pushes for lethal aid to Syrian rebels

Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel proposes legislation to provide funds to anti-Assad opposition

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top Democrat on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee is calling on the Obama administration to train and arm select elements of the Syrian opposition as well as provide humanitarian assistance as the deadly civil war marked a second anniversary Friday.

“It is past time to stop the madness in Syria,” Rep. Eliot Engel wrote to colleagues in seeking support for legislation to aid the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The lawmaker, who plans to introduce his bill on Monday, cited the estimated 70,000 Syrians killed and more than 1 million refugees. His legislation would provide economic assistance to local groups supporting the opposition, expand humanitarian assistance and authorize the training and arming of vetted Syrian opposition fighters.

“US training and arming of carefully vetted Syrian opposition forces offer many potential benefits, but two stand out above all: bringing the humanitarian disaster to an end as soon as possible and helping ensure that the US has a constructive relationship with a successor government in Damascus that pursues development, democracy and peace with its neighbors and rejects the regionally destabilizing influence of Iran and Hezbollah,” Engel wrote.

Engel’s move gives fresh impetus to the demands by some in Congress for greater US involvement to end the bloodshed, and it comes just days before President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East. So far, only a few Republican lawmakers, led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have demanded greater military action such as air strikes and arming the rebels.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced at a conference in Rome last month a $60 million package of nonlethal assistance, the first direct help to the opposition forces trying to overthrow Assad.

The State Department said Wednesday that it has yet to begin shipping the meals and medical supplies to the armed opposition, as it was still in talks with the Free Syrian Army.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of Engel’s letter.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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