By Paul Heintz
In a break with President Barack Obama, Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) opposed a measure Wednesday empowering the United States to train and equip Syrian rebels in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"I do not believe that that plan has any reasonable prospect of success," Welch said in a web video recorded shortly before he cast a 'no' vote on the House floor.
Welch joined 71 Republicans and 84 other Democrats in opposing the Syria amendment, which was attached to a stopgap spending bill. They were overpowered by a bipartisan coalition of 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats who backed the measure after Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other top administration officials personally lobbied House members to stand behind the White House. Welch also opposed the underlying spending bill, which passed by a vote of 319 to 108.
Like the rest of Vermont's congressional delegation, Welch supported Obama's use of air strikes to protect the Kurdish region of Iraq from ISIS fighters and to evacuate religious minorities trapped on a remote mountainside. But after Obama outlined a broader plan to confront ISIS fighters in Syria during a White House address last week, Welch issued a statement saying he was "skeptical about the effectiveness of air strikes in Syria and am deeply concerned about the possible unintended consequence of propping up" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his explanation of his vote Wednesday, Welch cited three reasons for opposing the arming and training of Syrian rebels:
"First," he said, "it's extremely difficult to have any confidence that we'll be able to find, quote, 'moderate rebels' who will be vetted, trained and equipped and will go into that battle space and maintain a loyalty to us."
"Second," Welch said, "the battle space they're entering is a cauldron of conflict." In addition to Assad's and ISIS' forces, he said, the turmoil includes an al Qaeda affiliate and "1,500 separate and competing groups."
"I don't see, practically speaking, how five to six thousand new soldiers with questionable loyalty and limited experience will make a meaningful difference in that battle space."
"And then third," he said, "we do not have reliable allies." Saudi Arabia and Qatar ought to do more to assist allied forces, he argued, than simply "show up for a photo op."
Welch said he continued to support the use of "counter-terrorism activities by the US in partnership with reliable allies to play a role in defeating ISIS," but he argued that the Iraqi army was ultimately responsible for standing up to the organization.
"So we can do these things and maintain an offensive on ISIS, but the plan that is being proposed and I'm voting on today is one that will get us involved in the Syrian civil war," he said. "And I do not believe that plan has a reasonable prospect of success."
The Senate is expected to vote on the resolution later Thursday.