September 5, 2013

How do we tell good guys from the bad in Syrian opposition


Lindsey Graham, perhaps the Senate's leading hawk on military intervention in Syria, says the most important part of U.S. strategy there is "supporting vetted opposition forces." Bob Corker, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he is dismayed by "the lack of support we are giving to the vetted moderate opposition." The committee's amendment to the intervention resolution, authored by John McCain, calls for strengthening the "vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces."

In Washington, use of the word "vetting" is usually confined to unknown political candidates and cabinet nominees. So what is this vetting in Syria everyone is talking about? Is the U.S. government requiring opposition fighters to fill out questionnaires? Show photo ID? Hand over bank statements and tax returns?

Whatever it is doing -- a good bit of it is classified -- the Obama administration, along with some supporters on Capitol Hill, claims its vetting can distinguish the good guys from the brutal jihadist killers among the Syrian rebels. But some key members of Congress remain very concerned.

"In places like Syria, vetting can be unreliable and inconsistent," Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told me via email recently. "So far, the administration has not made a compelling case that it can differentiate between the factions, or that it even knows the makeup of the factions. The conclusions it has drawn as a result of its vetting are in stark contrast to the briefings I've received, and I remain concerned that a large part of these rebels pose a great threat to our interests."

The true nature of the Syrian rebels has turned into perhaps the pivotal issue in the intervention debate. 

Among the many question that opponents of intervention have, perhaps the most fundamental is this: Who are we helping?

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