WASHINGTON >> The effort to train and arm Syrian rebels proved a tough sell with many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now serving in the House. Wariness among veterans crossed party lines as Republicans Democrats alike said they feared weapons and training would one day be used against Americans instead of against militants seeking an Islamic state.
Overall, eight Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the House opposed President Barack Obama’s plan to arm and train the rebels when it cleared the House Wednesday. Seven voted for the measure, which was being considered Thursday in the Senate.
California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine who served in Fallujah, said he couldn’t vote for something he knows cannot work. “Arming Islamists to fight other Islamists is not a winning strategy,” Hunter said Wednesday. “I don’t believe the weapons and tactics that we bestow to the Islamists will only be used against America’s enemies.”
Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii called the proposal unrealistic, saying it would take too long to train too few fighters. Over that time, the Islamic State militants will grow in strength, she said before voting no.
“We’ve heard this story before. We know how it ends,” said Gabbard, who worked in a medical unit in Iraq as a member of the Army National Guard. “Look at Iraq. Look at Libya. Clearly our leaders have not learned their lesson.”
Republican Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada said he agrees the militants pose a grave threat to the U.S. and its allies. He also said he agrees with other steps the U.S. is taking, such as airstrikes and bolstering Iraqi security forces. But he called the rebels the U.S. seeks to train a “ragtag collection of 100 disparate groups.”
“The one thing I cannot support, the one thing I will not support, is arming the so-called moderate opposition force,” said Heck, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves who served in Iraq. “… This is a plan that is destined to fail for the sake of saying we did something.”
As an aide helped her off the House floor in her wheelchair, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who grew up in Hawaii, explained her no vote. Duckworth lost both legs serving in Iraq. “I don’t trust who these rebel groups are,” she said.
Even if rebel groups are successful, Duckworth said, she worries about what the next step would be. She wonders if the U.S. would then move to help the rebels overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. “The American people really deserve to know what we’re getting into,” Duckworth said.
Republican Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, a combat surgeon who served in Iraq and voted yes, said that training vetted, moderate Syrian rebels was “one step in the right direction and it is supported by military experts.”
Some of the veterans who spoke against the measure argued for more forceful steps to dealing with the militants, as did Wenstrup. “We need to crush ISIS, not work on training more Islamic radicals,” Hunter said.