US to aid both sides in Sunni-Shia war

I bet that headline stopped you short. It's not exactly true - yet. But with the announcement by the president yesterday that he is seeking $500 million for "vetted" Sunni rebels in Syria, the US risks becoming the Shia air force in Iraq and a major patron of Sunni militias in Syria.

Is it impossible that the two sides would ever come in conflict with one another? As the conflict in Iraq spreads into Syria and possibly Lebanon, it has the potential to become more of a sectarian conflict than it already is.

The Hill:

The White House is asking Congress for $500 million to train and equip vetted pro-Western Syrian opposition groups

The initiative to bolster moderate rebels comes as the administration is contemplating the next steps to fight the Sunni extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has established a foothold in both countries. 

The request is part of a $1.5 billion Regional Stabilization Initiative to aid the moderate Syrian rebels and help neighboring countries weather the fallout from the three-year civil war. The initiative is included in the $58.6 billion the Pentagon is seeking in wartime funding for fiscal 2015.

If Congress approves the request, it would expand U.S. efforts to aid opposition rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Currently the CIA runs those efforts, but the new funds would allow the Defense Department to take over, ramping up U.S. support.

The request comes as ISIS has captured large areas of the two Mideast nations and threatens the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Critics say the Obama administration failed to offer support to vetted Syrian rebel groups earlier, allowing the militant Sunni group to rise.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has long-supported training and equipping moderate Syrian opposition forces, praised the initiative. 

"In light of recent events in Iraq and Syria, this is appropriate spending," Levin said Thursday.

"The request includes $500 million to train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian opposition, which closely matches language approved by a strong bipartisan majority on the Armed Services Committee during our consideration of the defense authorization bill,” he added.

According to the White House, the $1.5 billion in funds for stabilization would build up the capacity of the Syrian opposition and work to strengthen neighboring countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, to "manage the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict," such as refugee assistance.

The request also mirrors a proposal from Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The Obama Administration’s new request to support moderate opposition groups in Syria shows that the United States is serious about taking on the dual threat of the Assad regime and extremist groups," Engel said in a statement. 

"Only by fighting both threats at the same time can we advance our interests in Syria,” he continued.

For now, whatever "moderate" Sunni rebels there are in Syria are more interested in fighting Assad than Shia fanatics. Who's to say that won't change if the Shias initiate a bloody crackdown on Sunnis for joining ISIS in Iraq? And with Iran poised to enter the fray, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states will contemplate some kind of response.

You just get the feeling we're not helping matters any and may be stoking the fires of sectarianism in the region.