Months of bipartisan negotiations have finally culminated in an agreement over Congress’s annual defense policy bill. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is one of those must-pass pieces of legislation that needs to be implemented every year before the Pentagon can operate in full confidence. Without an NDAA, the world’s most lethal military is flying blind.
When you include the annexes, appendices, and the accompanying conference report, the entire package is a massive 3,076 pages. But one section buried in the middle of the bill has the potential to be a game-changer. For the first time in the Pentagon’s legislative blueprint, the United States government will be permitted to sell Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) to Syrian opposition units that have been vetted by the intelligence community.
The MANPAD exception doesn’t at first appear to be a major deal, since President-Elect Donald Trump has let it be known that he isn’t especially impressed with the opposition fighters trying to remove Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if by some chance the Trump administration does change its opinion (perfectly feasible, given all of Trump’s other policy shifts), it could now direct the Pentagon to provide anti-aircraft missiles under the law as it’s currently drafted.
Before we get too ahead of ourselves, the NDAA still needs to clear the House tomorrow and the Senate next week, and senators are sure to add amendments to the text in order to insert some of their priorities. Senator Rand Paul, who has argued vocally for Washington to limit its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, will have an opportunity to alter this provision or add a qualifier to shut off the MANPAD option. If he chooses to do so, Paul will likely have a couple Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.
At it stands now, however, such a revision is merely hypothetical. If the NDAA passes as is, the Congress will have authorized the deployment of dangerous anti-air missiles into a country that is already crawling with extremist rebel and militia groups. The only limitation on the Pentagon in this regard is no limitation at all: all the Defense Department would need to do before delivering the weapons is submit a report to Congress on the details of the transfer and wait 30 days before sending them into Syria. There is no conditionality, no certification process that the rebel recipients aren’t cooperating with al-Qaeda affiliates or inspired fighters, and no real option to block the transfers.
The MANPAD provision in the NDAA, rather, is a complete change in Syria policy by Congress. In the 2015 omnibus, Congress prevented any money that was devoted to the Syrian opposition from being spent on procuring or transferring MANPADS into the country. Indeed, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorized lethal defensive weapons to the Free Syrian Army in 2013, they introduced a clause that prohibited MANPADS unless the president certified that it was absolutely necessary for national security reasons.
More than three years later, with the war in Syria more factionalized, violent, and bloody than it was in 2013 – not to mention how much more dangerous terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are – the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have decided to loosen the MANPAD restrictions. Does America really want to risk giving al-Qaeda-esque fighters the capability to take down aircraft? Whether or not the loophole remains open will depend on whether lawmakers stand up and point out that this isn’t a wise course of action.