House Democrat wants lethal aid for Syrian rebels

In this citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, anti-Syrian regime protesters, wave the Syrian revolutionary flags during a protest to mark the second anniversary of the their uprising, in Aleppo, Syria, Friday March 15, 2013. The chief of Syria's main, western-backed rebel group marked the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad on Friday by pledging to fight until the "criminal" regime is gone. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is calling on the Obama administration to train and arm select elements of the Syrian opposition as well as provide humanitarian assistance as the deadly civil war marked an ignominious second anniversary on Friday.

"It is past time to stop the madness in Syria," Rep. Eliot Engel wrote to his House colleagues in seeking support for legislation to aid the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The New York lawmaker, who plans to introduce his bill on Monday, cited the estimated 70,000 Syrians killed and more than 1 million refugees. His legislation would provide economic assistance to local groups supporting the opposition, expand humanitarian assistance and authorize the training and arming of vetted Syrian opposition fighters.

"U.S. training and arming of carefully vetted Syrian opposition forces offer many potential benefits, but two stand out above all: bringing the humanitarian disaster to an end as soon as possible and helping ensure that the U.S. has a constructive relationship with a successor government in Damascus that pursues development, democracy and peace with its neighbors and rejects the regionally destabilizing influence of Iran and Hezbollah," Engel wrote.

The move by Engel gives fresh impetus to the demands by some in Congress for greater U.S. involvement to end the bloodshed and comes just days before President Barack Obama's trip to the Middle East. So far, only a few Republican lawmakers, led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have demanded greater military action such as air strikes and arming the rebels.

Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggested sending ammunition to the Syrian opposition.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced at a conference in Rome last month a $60 million package of nonlethal assistance, the first direct help to the opposition forces trying to overthrow Assad.

The State Department said Wednesday that it has yet to begin shipping the meals and medical supplies to the armed opposition as it was still in talks with the Free Syrian Army.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of Engel's letter.