Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's decision to authorize lethal aid to Syrian rebels marks a deepening of U.S. involvement in the two-year civil war. But U.S. officials are still grappling with what type and how much weaponry to send the opposition forces and how to ensure it stays out of the hands of extremists battling for control of Syria.
U.S. officials confirmed Obama's authorization Thursday after the White House announced it had conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line," suggesting greater American intervention.
While a small percentage of the 93,000 people reportedly killed in Syria are said to have died from chemical weapons — U.S. intelligence puts the number at 100 to 150 — the White House views the deployment of the deadly agents as a flouting of international norms. Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the multiple chemical weapons attacks gave greater urgency to the situation.
"Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing," Rhodes said of the ramped-up U.S. response. But he added that the U.S. would make specific determinations "on our own timeline."
The Obama administration could give the rebels a range of weapons, including small arms, assault rifles, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles. The opposition forces could operate most of that equipment without significant training.
In Syria Friday, the Foreign Ministry said, "The White House has issued a statement full of lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria based on fabricated information. The United States is using cheap tactics to justify President Barack Obama's decision to arm the Syrian opposition."
And in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser said Russia not convinced with Washington's claim that Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against the opposition. Yuri Ushakov told reporters the information provided by U.S. officials to Russia "didn't look convincing."
The commander of the main Western-backed rebel group fighting in Syria said he hoped that U.S. weapons will be in the hands of rebels in the near future, noting it would boost the spirits of the fighters on the ground. "We hope to have the weapons and ammunition that we need in the near future," Gen. Salim Idris told Al-Arabiya TV.
"This will surely reflect positively on the rebels' morale, which is high despite attempts by the regime, Hezbollah and Iran to show that their morale after the fall of Qusair deteriorated," he said, referring to the town near the border with Lebanon.
Obama's opposition to sending American troops into Syria makes it less likely the U.S. will provide sophisticated arms or anti-aircraft weapons that would require large-scale training. Administration officials are also worried about high-powered weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups. Hezbollah fighters are among those backing Assad's armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists back the rebellion.
The CIA and special operations trainers are already running some weapons training programs for the rebels and are expected to take charge of teaching the opposition how to use the weapons the U.S. has agreed to supply, another U.S. official said.
There is also some debate within the administration about who would provide the lethal aid and how it might be delivered, the U.S. officials said.
All the officials insisted on anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the record about internal administration discussions.
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