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Arms to Syria Opposition Authorized in Proposed U.S. Bill

A Syrian boy holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the Syrian city of Aleppo on April 14, 2013. Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
A Syrian boy holds an AK-47 assault rifle in the Syrian city of Aleppo on April 14, 2013. Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

May 16 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation that would authorize President Barack Obama to provide arms to the Syrian opposition, even as support for the rebels weakened at the United Nations.

“Groups that have gone through a thorough vetting process which meet certain criteria on human rights, terrorism, and nonproliferation would be eligible,” Senator Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic chairman, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, its senior Republican, said yesterday in a statement. “A presidential waiver is included allowing for the distribution of anti-aircraft defensive systems with strict limitations.”

While Obama administration officials have said they are evaluating all options in Syria, the president and his national security advisers have expressed reluctance to arm rebel groups partly because some of the militant factions have ties to al-Qaeda.

“Understandably there’s a desire for easy answers,” Obama said on May 7. “We want to make sure that we are acting deliberately.”

Lawmakers have pressed the administration to take stronger action after a U.S. intelligence assessment last month that chemical weapons may have been used in the conflict. Obama has backed the UN’s frustrated efforts to get into Syria to evaluate conflicting reports on chemical weapons.

UN Vote

A symbolic vote in the world body’s General Assembly yesterday reflected declining support for the Syrian opposition as the two-year uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime drags on.

The assembly voted 107-12 for a text drafted by Qatar that designated a disorganized political grouping of rebels, the Syrian National Coalition, as “effective representative interlocutors needed for a political transition.” Fifty-nine countries abstained.

A comparable resolution in August garnered 133 votes, more than two-thirds of the General Assembly, where each of the 193 UN member nations is entitled to one vote.

The Syrian National Coalition welcomed the UN vote, describing it on the group’s Facebook page as sending a “clear message by the international community for Assad’s regime to stop its savage oppression of the revolution.”

The measure was promoted primarily by Sunni Muslim monarchies and blamed Assad for most of the bloodshed, accusing his regime of threatening to use chemical weapons against his own people.

Abuses Cited

The failure to attract more votes highlights a drop in support for the opposition in the face of questions about abuses by some militia members and the influence of al-Qaeda. The Syrian regime routinely describes the rebels as “terrorists.”

Reports from Syria have cited alleged abuses by both sides of the conflict, and there are conflicting accounts on the possible use of sarin gas and who may have been responsible.

Menendez and Corker said the Foreign Relations Committee will act on their measure on May 21. Among the provisions is a transition fund of $250 million a year through fiscal 2015 to help the civilian opposition in early planning to run the country if they defeat Assad’s regime.

To contact the reporters on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net; Flavia Krause-Jackson in New York at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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