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Can Congress Force Action to Oust Assad?

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to deliberate on Tuesday on bipartisan legislation introduced by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Bob Corker that would, as Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative notes, “allow U.S. military assistance to vetted Syrian rebels, authorize the imposition of new sanctions on sellers of arms and oil to the Assad regime, and create a $250 million transition fund for post-Assad Syria.”

These are all good ideas, although the provision of military assistance to the rebels should have begun a year or two ago; if it had, extremists might not have gained such prominence in the rebels’ ranks and Bashar Assad would not have been able to stage a dismaying comeback with the aid of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet is never too late to act.

A major battle is now unfolding in the city of Qusayr pitting Hezbollah and Assad fighters against rebels in what both sides say could be a turning point in the war. A signal now from the U.S. that it will do more to help the rebels could tilt the balance of power in their favor. Perception matters a great deal in war and the prospect of American support for the insurgency could lead more Syrians to join its ranks while causing some of Assad’s fighters to lose heart.

Yet the Obama administration appears opposed to such action. It raises legitimate concerns about the dangers of arming the rebels, without offering any alternative policy to avert this slow-motion catastrophe. The best bet now is that, just as with Iran sanctions, Congress could force the administration’s hand.