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US Senate panel backs arming Syrian rebels

Last modified: 22 May 2013 01:46

A United States Senate panel voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to send weapons to rebels fighting Syria's government, but it was not clear who would get the arms even if the bill succeeds, as Washington struggles to deal with its response to the conflict.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 for legislation that would send arms to "vetted" moderate members of the Syrian opposition, the first time US lawmakers have approved such military action in the two-year-old civil war.

The measure will now be considered by the full Senate, where a vocal group of legislators has been pushing for President Barack Obama to do more to help the rebels waging a war in which at least 80,000 people have died.

Only three senators on the committee - Republican Ron Paul and Democrats Tom Udall and Chris Murphy - opposed the bill. But lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about whether sending arms risked putting powerful weapons into the wrong hands, including fighters with ties to al Qaeda.

"I don't think we know who we're arming. And the truth is, it changes every day. Sometimes resistance fighters are fighting each other," Udall said.

Even backers of the bill said they believed that the US had to act largely to mitigate the risks of not doing anything.

"The situation in Syria is critical for Syria, for the region and for US efforts to counter extremism," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the panel's chairman and a co-author of the bill.

There is less enthusiasm for arming the rebels in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so it is not clear whether the Senate bill would ever get through Congress and reach Obama and be signed into law.

Republican Senator James Risch, who eventually voted yes to the weapons bill, expressed concerns about the prospects in Syria if President Bashar al-Assad were ousted.

"I'm not sure that the people we help here are going to be particularly grateful once the deed is done," he said.

{Source: Reuters]