US & Canada

US Senate backs training and arming Syria rebels

A rebel fighter makes improvised mortar shells inside a weapons factory in the southern countryside of Idlib 9 September 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A rebel fighter makes improvised mortar shells near Idlib, Syria

The US Senate has approved President Barack Obama's plan to train and arm Syrian rebel groups to fight Islamic State (IS) militants.

The vote came a day after the House easily passed the president's plan by 273 votes to 156, with both Democrats and Republicans voting yes.

On Thursday, the US continued to strike IS targets in Iraq.

Air strikes are expected in Syria, but Mr Obama has pledged to not authorise a ground operation in either country.

"It is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of our partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries' futures," he said on Wednesday.

The jihadist group controls large areas of Syria and northern Iraq, and the US has undertaken 174 air strikes against IS in Iraq since mid-August.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said Mr Obama has seen a plan for - but not fully authorised - air strikes in Syria

The Senate passed the $500m (£305m) proposal despite some reservations from members of both parties.

"While I'm concerned about the ability of the coalition to generate sufficient combat power to defeat [IS] within Syria, I do support the president's proposal to begin the programme," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, usually at odds with the US president.

In the House on Wednesday, Republicans voted for the measure two-to-one while Democrats backed the plan 114-85.

The bill, attached to a larger measure funding the US government after 1 October, will only authorise the programme until 11 December, allowing the measure to be debated at greater length after the US midterm elections.

Among those questioning the wisdom of the measure ahead of the Senate vote were members of Mr Obama's own Democratic party.

"If we've learned anything of the last 12 years of war, it's that the Middle East seems largely immune from US efforts to bend it to our will," Senator Chris Murphy said on Wednesday during a committee hearing.

Image caption Note: where strikes are reported over two days, the latest date is recorded

During a House committee hearing on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed back against doubts on the loyalties and effectiveness of rebel groups.

He said several of them, each including as many as 4,000 fighters, had fought against IS and other militants.

In the same hearing, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the US military had presented a detailed plan for air strikes in Syria to Mr Obama on Wednesday and was awaiting his approval.

"The president has not yet approved its finality," Mr Hagel said.

The Obama administration has said the president has the authority to authorise air strikes inside Syria but needs Congressional approval for the train-and-equip programme, which Saudi Arabia has agreed to host.