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U.S. Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to Syrian Rebels
The Obama administration, concluding that the troops of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria have used chemical weapons against rebel forces in his country's civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.
The officials held out the possibility that the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they said that for now supplying the antiaircraft weapons that rebel commanders have said they sorely need is not under consideration.
Supplying weapons to the rebels has been a long-sought goal of advocates of a more aggressive American response to the Syrian civil war. A proposal made last year by David H. Petraeus, then the director of the C.I.A., and backed by the State Department and the Pentagon to supply weapons was rejected by the White House because of President Obama's deep reluctance to be drawn into another war in the Middle East.
But even with the decision to supply lethal aid, the Obama administration remains deeply divided about whether to take more forceful action to try to quell the fighting, which has killed more than 90,000 people over more than two years. Many in the American government believe that the military balance has tilted so far against the rebels in recent months that American shipments of arms to select groups may be too little, too late.
Some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran.
But White House officials remain wary, and on Thursday Benjamin J. Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama's top foreign policy advisers, all but ruled out the imposition of a no-fly zone and indicated that no decision had been made on other military actions.
Mr. Obama declared last August that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would cross a "red line" that would prompt a more resolute American response. In an April letter to Congress, the White House said that intelligence agencies had "varying degrees of confidence" that Syrian government troops had used chemical weapons. But the conclusion of the latest intelligence review, according to officials, is more definitive.
The White House said on Thursday that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons "on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year." The assessment came after American and European government analysts examined physiological evidence and other intelligence indicating that Syrian troops had used sarin gas against the opposition. The announcement said that American intelligence officials now believed that 100 to 150 people had died from the attacks, but officials cautioned that the number could be higher.
That conclusion is based on evidence that includes intelligence on the Assad government's plans for the use of chemical weapons, accounts of specific attacks, and descriptions of symptoms experienced by victims of the attacks. Mr. Rhodes said the new assessment had changed the president's calculus.
But the president's caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups.
Moreover, the United Arab Emirates declined to host a meeting of allied defense officials to discuss Syria, concerned that in the absence of strong American leadership the conference might degenerate into bickering and finger-pointing among various gulf nations with different views on the best ways to support the rebellion.
Adding to those voices was former President Bill Clinton, who earlier this week endorsed a more robust American intervention in Syria to help the rebels, aligning himself with hawks like Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who fault Mr. Obama for his reluctance to get entangled in the war.
Speaking on Tuesday at a private session in New York with Mr. McCain, Mr. Clinton said, "Sometimes it's best to get caught trying, as long as you don't overcommit."
A flurry of high-level meetings in Washington this week underscored the divisions within the Obama administration about what actions to take in Syria to stop the fighting. The meetings were hastily arranged after Mr. Assad's troops, joined by thousands of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, claimed the strategic city of Qusayr and raised fears in Washington that large parts of the rebellion could be on the verge of collapse.
After weeks of efforts to organize a conference at which the Assad government and the opposition were to negotiate a political transition, the administration is now slowing down that effort, fearful that if it were held now, Mr. Assad would be in too strong a position to make any concessions.
The conference has been pushed back repeatedly amid warnings that the main rebel leaders did not plan to attend. But now, an administration official said, the focus will switch from setting a date to fortifying the rebels before they sit across the table from the government.
The timing of the announcement Thursday on the use of chemical weapons, an official said, reflected both the completion of the intelligence assessment and the fact that Mr. Obama leaves on Sunday for a meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized countries in Northern Ireland.
Formally designating the Assad government as a user of chemical weapons, this official said, will make it easier for Mr. Obama to rally support from Britain, France and other allies for further measures.
Until now, the American support to Syrian rebels has been limited to food rations and medical kits, although the Obama administration has quietly encouraged Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to ship weapons into the country. The limited assistance that the Obama administration is now promising is likely to be dwarfed by the help that American officials said Iran provides to Mr. Assad's government. Many of the weapons and other military assistance that Iran has provided has been flown to Damascus through Iraqi airspace, the officials said.
There was a lull in the flights after Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq during a March visit to Baghdad to order more inspections of Iranian flights. By early May, however, the Iranian flights had started up again.
The flights, and Hezbollah's decision to enter the fight on the side of the Assad government, have provided such an important boost for the Assad government that some senior State Department officials believe that Mr. Assad's gains cannot be reversed unless the United States takes steps to curtail the Iranian arms flow, disabling the airfields that the Syrian government uses to receive arms, transport troops around the country and carry out air attacks.
Mr. Rhodes said there was no reason to think that the resistance has access to chemical weapons. "We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons," he said.
According to a C.I.A. report, which was described by an American official who declined to be identified, the United States has acquired blood, urine and hair samples from two Syrian rebels -- one dead and one wounded -- who were in a firefight with Syrian government forces in mid-March northeast of Damascus. The samples showed that the rebels were exposed to sarin.
When the White House first disclosed its suspicions about the use of chemical weapons in April, Mr. Obama said he would defer action until an investigation found more conclusive evidence that established a "chain of custody" in the use of the gas.
The United States, working with Britain, France and Israel, was able to compile evidence that Syrian officials had planned and executed a string of chemical weapons attacks in Aleppo, Damascus and two other cities.
[Source: By Mark Mazzetti, Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler, The New York Times, Washington, 13Jun13]
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