WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House asked lawmakers on Thursday for US$500 million (S$626 million) to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, in what would be a significant escalation of US involvement in a conflict that has spilled into Iraq.
Following several signals in recent weeks by President Barack Obama's administration - and months of pressure from lawmakers like Senator John McCain - the White House said it intends to "ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition."
The request is part of a US$1.5 billion Regional Stabilization Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbours Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees.
The proposed funding would serve "vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to help defend the Syrian people, stabilise areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement," the White House said in a statement.
The proposal was part of the US$65.8 billion overseas contingency operations request to Congress for fiscal year 2015, which begins October 1.
In a separate statement, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the funding "would build on the administration's longstanding efforts to empower the moderate Syrian opposition" and allow the Pentagon to increase its support to vetted armed rebels.
Washington has been studying options for providing additional assistance to rebel forces beyond the existing aid, which includes mainly "non-lethal" support.
While US officials normally publicly refuse to comment on details of training for opposition groups, Obama's National Security Advisor Susan Rice acknowledged early this month that the Pentagon was providing "lethal and non-lethal support" to Syrian rebels.
About US$287 million in mainly non-lethal support has been cleared for the rebels since March 2011, and the CIA has participated in a secret military training program in neighbouring Jordan for the moderate opposition.
The request comes at an extraordinarily sensitive time in the Middle East, with Sunni extremists in Iraq who are threatening to overtake Baghdad joining forces with others in Syria.
Observers say members of Al-Qaeda's franchise in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, pledged loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), giving it control over both sides of the frontier.
Despite the Sunni insurgent offensive threatening to tear Iraq apart, Obama repeated his pledge to avoid sending US ground troops back to that country.
"We've got to pay attention to the threats that are emanating from the chaos in the Middle East, although I want to be very clear: We're not sending combat troops into Iraq," Obama told a town hall event in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
"They're going to have to contribute to solving their own problems here, although we'll protect our people and we'll make sure that we're going after terrorists who could do us harm."
The Syria initiative received tepid support from at least one Republican lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio, who has been a fierce critic of what the Obama administration's "rudderless foreign policy."
"This is long overdue and the US must lead, with European and regional partners, in helping to develop a cadre of fighters who will alienate ISIL and Al-Nusra Islamic extremists, and take the fight directly to Bashar al-Assad," Rubio said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, said a similar funding request in the defense authorization bill received broad bipartisan support in his committee.
"In light of recent events in Iraq and Syria, this is appropriate spending," Levin said.