Reid, Heller split on Syria strategy

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s senators split Thursday on backing Syrian rebels with U.S. arms and training, offering starkly different views as to whether the plan might work to repel violent Islamic jihadists in the Middle East.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voted for the strategy advanced by President Barack Obama as the first step in a campaign against the group that calls itself the Islamic State. The Senate voted 78-22 to give Obama the go-ahead in a bill that also contained funding to keep the government running until Dec. 11 while lawmakers go home and campaign for re-election.

“The Senate has passed a strong bill to arm and train vetted Syrian opposition fighters as part of the president’s strategy to destroy ISIS without repeating the mistakes of the past in the Middle East,” Reid said, using one of the acronyms used to describe the al-Qaida offshoot.

Reid told reporters that Obama’s plan for Syria “is not Iraq,” referring to the invasion Congress in 2002 authorized President George W. Bush to carry out against Saddam Hussein.

In this case, Reid said, “America will lead a coalition that includes our friends and allies in European and Arab nations in a targeted, strategic mission.”

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against the plan, saying he was not persuaded.

“Despite calls for a strategy with clear-cut parameters and an end goal, we’re still receiving mixed messages,” Heller said in a statement after the vote. “Basic answers to fundamental questions are missing here. For instance, is this a war or is it not? Will we need boots on the ground or not?

“There are too many uncertainties in this proposed plan, and that is why I cannot support the president’s request to arm and train these Syrian rebels,” Heller said. “This is not a winning strategy.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said Thursday he was confident the Syria strategy, which was approved on Wednesday in the House, contains safeguards that would enable Congress to closely watch over the plan as it unfolds, and an expiration date on the president’s authority that ensures lawmakers will have a further voice.

Horsford was the only one of four Nevada representatives to vote for the president’s strategy. Fellow Democrat Dina Titus and Republicans Joe Heck and Mark Amodei voted against it, saying they had doubts whether the rebels could be trusted or effective.

“It was a tough and difficult decision but doing nothing was not an option I could support,” Horsford said in an interview.

Horsford said he was satisfied by administration promises the groups will be thoroughly vetted before given advanced weapons and training. “Money is prohibited from going to terrorist groups, to Shia militias aligned with or who support (Syrian president Bashar) Assad, groups associated with the government of Iran, Hezbollah or other extremist factions in the region,” he said.

“There are some who believe Congress has authorized us to go to war, but that is not the case,” Horsford said. “This allows the president the tools and resources he needs until Dec. 11, and if there is more that is needed we will be here to help make those decisions before the end of the year.”

“This is about a true threat of a barbaric and extreme faction that has committed horrific violence, actions that are a direct and indirect threat to the United States and its allies,” Horsford said. “We have a responsibility as a leader in the world to support our commander in chief in his role of leading an international community response and ultimately destroy (the Islamic Front).”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

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