The White House is evaluating whether stepped-up aid to opposition forces in Syria should include arming the rebels, and no decisions have been made, President Barack Obama’s spokesman said.
“We are constantly reviewing our assistance programs,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said today in Washington. The U.S. policy has been to provide only non-lethal aid to opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, “but we are continuing to review our options.”
Carney and other administration officials said the U.S. remains concerned about weapons falling into the hands of extremists engaged in Syria’s civil war. The U.S. is looking for ways to increase pressure on Assad’s regime following assessments by intelligence agencies, “with varying degrees of confidence,” that small amounts of sarin nerve gas were used in Syria.
Obama said yesterday that those assessments alone aren’t sufficient to trigger a stronger U.S. response. While saying the Defense Department has prepared a list of options, Obama declined to specify what course the U.S. may take if the reports are confirmed.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” Obama said. “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”
The U.S. is enlisting the United Nations and its NATO allies in trying to corroborate the evidence.
The disclosure last week of the intelligence assessments escalated calls from some members of Congress for the U.S. to take further steps, such as imposing a no-fly zone over Syria or providing arms to the rebels.
Obama said that confirmation that chemical weapons were used by the regime “means that there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”
The U.S. already is consulting with its allies about sending opposition fighters communication equipment, armor, night-vision goggles and vehicles to aid their fight, Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in an e-mail.
The Pentagon is “developing options for a wide range of contingencies,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said today.
“We believe it’s important to have options on the shelf to pull off in the event the president looks to us to exercise those options,” he said.
Little and Carney said the U.S. would move cautiously to make sure aid doesn’t reach extremists. Some groups fighting the Syrian regime have ties to al-Qaeda.
“We are fully mindful of the challenges posed by extremists in Syria,” Little said. “That’s something that’s obviously a factor as we examine the conflict there.”
Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have been among the most vocal critics of Obama’s approach in Syria, and yesterday they said the president was trying to “defend the indefensible.”
“The uncertainty and ambiguity of our policy toward Syria has contributed to our current crisis,” they said in a joint statement. “It will not be long before Assad takes this delay as an invitation to use chemical weapons again on an even larger scale.”
The senators said the U.S. has a range of military options short of sending troops into Syria and called on Obama to “articulate exactly” the nation’s strategy and goals.
The anti-Assad uprising has killed more than 70,000 people since it started in March 2011, according to UN estimates.
Most Americans continue to reject the notion that the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken April 24-28. Sixty-two percent said the U.S. doesn’t have a responsibility to intervene, while 24 percent saw a responsibility to act.
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