NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) - The time has come to arm the Syrian rebel fighters, according to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations committee.
The conflict in Syria has been going on for nearly two years.
The Obama administration opened the door to new military options in Syria after declaring last week it strongly believed the Assad regime used chemical weapons in two attacks in March. Two days after that announcement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said arming the Syrian rebels was a policy consideration.
"The legislation that I am proposing I think helps us move forward in trying to address the crisis in Syria and I believe that Assad's regime's behavior, whether be in the use of chemical weapons or the wholesale slaughter of civilians has crossed a line that forces us to consider all these options," Menendez told WCBS 880's Steve Scott.
Menendez: In Order To Change Situation In Syria, It's Time To Arm Rebels
Menendez said the conflict has caused a refugee crisis, given rise to terror groups and puts Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons at risk of falling into the wrong hands.
"Unless we change the tipping point in Syria where Assad presently has a monopoly on air power and artillery, we're not going to change the dynamics of both the humanitarian crisis and to preserve our national interests," Menendez told Scott.
Until now, U.S. efforts to bolster the rebels' fighting skills and gather intelligence on the groups operating inside Syria have been limited to small training camps in Jordan, according to two U.S. officials who weren't authorized to speak about secret activities and demanded anonymity.
There are several options for escalation, ranging from arming the rebels to targeted airstrikes and no-fly zones. However, arming the rebels is the most likely escalation, officials said.
"We're talking about arming vetted - and I want to underline vetted - Syrian opposition. That means those individuals who we fully understand are committed to a democratic, pluralistic Syria in the future, those who are not supportive of proliferation or human rights violations, those that we have for the better part now of two years come to know both their intentions and their motives and that is to give them the ability to have the type of weaponry that can help make them competitive and, more importantly, to change the tipping point and to also train them," said Menendez.
The senator conceded that history has shown that arming rebel groups has created terror and national security risks in the past - including giving rise to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But Menendez said in his estimation, arming the rebels in Syria now will prevent much more negative circumstances in that country and the region in the long run.
"I'm not myopic enough to believe that there isn't an element of risk. The problem is, we can sit back having seen 70,000 Syrians die, four million displaced, see the entire regions context of Jordan, Turkey and others who are facing the consequences of overflows, see the Israeli strike against weapons caches that Hezbollah, a terrorist group, would have gotten into Lebanon, see the Iranians continue to help Assad and create a foothold in the region that they want to promote as we're trying to close their nuclear weapons program. And that's the calculation we have to make," Menendez told Scott.
The senator said anti-tank artillery could be one option of the weapons the U.S. could give to the rebels.
"I know that the White House is considering the possibility of arming rebels. I think that this gives the administration potential backing by the Congress that, should they choose - we do not force, obviously - the arming of rebels, what we are doing is creating the capacity for that arming to take place," Menendez told Scott.
The proposal would also impose new sanctions on those who are providing arms and oil to the Assad regime, Menendez said.
The Syrian civil war has been going on for two years, with Bashar al-Assad's government forces attacking its own people.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed his desire to keep U.S. troops out of the Syrian conflict.
Menendez said he does not support nor does he foresee that there will be American boots on the ground in Syria.
"I think this is actually a preventive measure to ever having boots on the ground," he told Scott.
Over the weekend, Israeli warplanes targeted what Israel claimed were caches of Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group. Such weapons would allow Hezbollah to strike Tel Aviv and as far as southern Israel from inside Lebanese territory.
U.S. officials said the administration doesn't believe the weekend activity will force President Obama's hand, noting that the main U.S. concern is the use of chemical weapons by Assad, while Israel's top concern is conventional weapons falling into the hands of its enemies.
The chemical weapons argument is now under surprising attack, with former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte saying over the weekend she and fellow members of a four-member U.N. human rights panel have indications the nerve agent sarin was used by Syrian rebel forces, not by government forces.
That theory was rejected by U.S. officials. The State Department said the administration continues to believe that Syria's large chemical weapons stockpiles remain securely in the regime's control.
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