On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing with senior Pentagon officials to review the Pentagon’s FY2015 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget request of $58.6 billion. Included in that request are $5 billion for the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund, of which $500 million would go to training and equipping Syrian rebels. By definition, OCO funding is outside of the normal budgeting process, and is intended to fund requirements that emerged after the federal budget was proposed on March 4. However, the hearing revealed that there is no publicly articulable plan for how the Pentagon will spend this money, only that it is being developed. Thus, given all of the existing security assistance budget authorities, many congressional members have legitimate concerns that this could become a slush fund.
House Armed Services Committee Subject: “Fiscal Year 2015 OCO Budget Request,” Witnesses: Michael McCord, Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller); Adm. James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; Robert Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, July 16, 2014.
Rep. Adam Smith: Contained in one of those funds is an authorization for a Department of Defense effort to support friendly rebels in Syria. Now this is an effort that personally I support. I understand the limitations of it, but the bottom line is, when you look at ISIL and what’s going on in Syria and Iraq, regardless of the outcome we’re going to need friends in that region.
Mr. Work: Well, sir, I think this is an interactive discussion that we are looking forward to. On one side is have a fully cooked plan that we can say this is exactly how we expect to spend the money and then debates the merits of the plan and the other one which is what we have tried to do is we see what’s happening in the greater Middle East and the Central Command area of responsibility and Europe. We know that we already have plenty of authorities which the Congress has given us, 1206, 1208, 1207, global sustain and lift.
Rep. Davis: Our regional stabilization initiative—I think it’s still an issue of why that requirement is part of the undefined transfer fund and not a direct request of Congress to provide assistance. Can you clarify that again?
Mr. Work: As part of the broader counterterrorism partnership strategy that the president outlined, obviously everything that’s happening right now in Syria and Iraq has been the focus of intense discussion and debate inside the administration. And I think the president felt that we know we’re going to be doing something; we’re not certain what it is.
And what we tried to do is peg to certain levels of efforts—so for example the 500 million (dollars) that we had for our partners, we just said, what would happen if we had to do something to assist one of the countries? And we just kind of built it out from there to give examples to the committee and Congress on this is the type of things that we’re anticipating. But it’s impossible for us to predict exactly right now what it might be.
Adm. Winnefeld: And I’d just add as an example the 500 million (dollars) that we would anticipate for training and equipping Syrian opposition forces—that’s going to be subject to a very, very intense and rigorous interagency process to the deputies and the principals, ultimately the president. And then, of course, we would consult with Congress with the 15-day requirement.
Adm. Winnefeld: Unfortunately, a lot of that is classified and I wouldn’t be able to talk about it in a hearing like this. But I would say that we are coming together on the construct of a plan that would train moderate oppositionists in the Syria. We would train them outside Syria, obviously. I can’t get into where we would do that.
We would provide them with weapons, intelligence, logistic support, military advice, and they would conduct the insurgency struggle and also counter-ISIL, potentially, inside Syria. And I’d be happy to sit down with you privately and go into more detail, particularly as we get towards a decision on that. I want to make sure the president has his decisions based on this, to decide what it is—how he wants to configure this. But we do have a very good jelling together of a plan to do it.
Adm. Winnefeld: There is a unanimous view inside all the decision-making apparatus I participate in that we’re not going to put boots on the ground. This is not going to be an Iraq or an Afghanistan war in Syria. It’s not even going to be a war.
Adm. Winnefeld: We do want to train and equip the moderate members of the opposition so they can go in there and do essentially three things. They can counter the more radical elements of the opposition who are targeting them. They can undertake to place the Assad regime under such pressure they are not under right now that would cause them to come to the negotiating table and at the same time they can defend themselves and their families.
Rep. Smith: They can survive.
Adm. Winnefeld: That’s the intent. The precise details of how we do that I just can’t share right now.