WASHINGTON — The Obama administration can now move forward with plans to arm and train Syrian rebels — a key provision in its new war against the Islamic State — following a vote Thursday in the Senate.
The chamber voted 78-22 in favor of a bill that bars U.S. ground combat but allows the Pentagon to begin sending support to fighters opposing the extremist group after it seized territory in Syria and Iraq and beheaded two American journalists.
The House passed the measure Wednesday as part of a temporary budget bill to fund the government through Dec. 11. President Barack Obama has said he will sign it.
Congress moved quickly to approve the Syrian assistance this week despite deep reservations about the president’s newly unveiled Islamic State offensive, which relies on local forces to fight on the ground, stepped-up U.S. airstrikes and an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State.
"I am clear-eyed about the enormity of the challenge. There is risk … We must be willing to take some risk to degrade this brutal and barbaric organization," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
The legislation authorizes the Defense Department to redirect existing funding to the rebels, and it must notify Congress of its plans and progress. No dollar amount is specified in the bill, but the administration had requested $500 million to train about 5,000 Syrians.
The administration has estimated it may need 12,000 fighters to push out the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate that adheres to Sharia law and said it plans a violent clash with the United States. Some lawmakers have estimated the fight could take from six years to a decade.
"Frankly, I still have many questions about the way forward," Menendez said. "But I have no question that this particular action is needed now."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and other Republicans criticized Obama’s Syria initiative as part of a larger war plan that is politically motivated and short on policy substance.
"We know that something needs to be done, but your government doesn’t know what to do yet," he said.
The Syria authorization was attached to a continuing resolution, a stop-gap budget measure that will temporarily fund the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs disability claims processing and investigations of improper conduct, and stave off furloughs or a shutdown. Congress must now work to pass annual funding bills before the resolution expires in December.