U.S. Seen Moving Closer to Move on Arming Syrian Rebels

The Obama administration is weighing more seriously whether to provide Syrian rebels with arms and ammunition as momentum in the conflict shifts toward the Assad regime, according to a former U.S. official.

“I believe there is now a sense of urgency in administration deliberations on whether or not to participate in the desperately needed resupply of rebels with arms and ammunition,” Fred Hof, a former State Department liaison to the Syrian opposition, said yesterday in an interview. “I would not be at all surprised were a decision arrived at very soon, and I would be surprised if the decision is negative.”

President Barack Obama’s administration is under pressure to provide lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, which has said it won’t participate in talks arranged by the U.S. and Russia to end the conflict until such deliveries begin. Domestic critics such as Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have called the administration “delusional” to believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be willing to negotiate while he has the military upper hand.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said yesterday that administration officials were concerned by what they heard in recent conversations with General Salim Idris, the head of the Syrian opposition’s military wing.

Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a trip to the Mideast this week and will instead attend White House meetings, some of which will be about Syria, according to Psaki, who described the sessions as “routine.”

Conditions Worsened

“As we’ve heard firsthand from General Idris over the weekend, conditions on the ground have worsened, and that is greatly concerning,” Psaki said. “The bloodshed, and the loss of innocent lives has grown worse. The increase of foreign fighters has led to a greater concern about sectarian violence. So we are taking a closer look at what we can continue to do, to help the opposition.”

Rebels lost the strategic city of al-Qusair last week. Government control of the town, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Homs, secures the road from Damascus to Lebanon, cuts cross-border weapons supplies for the rebels and provides a staging ground for further offensives.

Obama has been reluctant to get the U.S. more deeply involved even though U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Assad’s regime has probably used small amounts of chemical weapons three times, according to three U.S. officials with knowledge of the administration’s deliberations.

At least until now, Obama has concluded that the potential benefits of a muscular intervention are outweighed by the negatives, beginning with the installation of a regime in Damascus that may no longer keep Syria’s cold peace with Israel.

Channeling Aid

The U.S. has let other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supply weapons to the rebels and recently began an effort to channel all lethal aid through Idris in an effort to ensure that fewer weapons get into the hands of extremists. At the same time, the administration has pushed a plan to hold negotiations between rebels and the regime about a negotiated political transition that would have Assad step down.

In a May press conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama acknowledged that his push with Russia for a peace conference -- dubbed Geneva 2 -- might not work.

“I’m not promising that it’s going to be successful,” the president said. “Frankly, sometimes once sort of the furies have been unleashed in a situation like we’re seeing in Syria, it’s very hard to put things back together.”

U.S.-Russia Meeting

Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, said that he would be “shocked if arms and ammunition, whether from U.S. stocks or elsewhere, were not ready to move instantly to and through Idris.”

Psaki said U.S. and Russian officials will meet on June 25 to discuss arrangements for the Geneva 2 talks, which are expected to be held in July. In the meantime, she said that the administration has had continuing talks about how to strengthen their position on the ground.

“The political process can’t happen in a vacuum, so we are taking a closer look at what we can do on the ground to help the opposition,” she said. “Many of these options have been discussed and they will continue to be.”

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