February 22nd, 2012
12:17 AM ET

U.S. officials mull possibility of arming Syrian rebels

By Adam Levine

The Obama administration seemed to nudge open the door Tuesday for arming Syrian rebels. The hint came as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to attend a Friday meeting in Tunisia to discuss solutions for Syria.

Both White House spokesman Jay Carney and State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland suggested that "additional measures" could be considered if President Bashar al-Assad's regime assault on civilians continues.

Nuland said that the United States is still seeking a "political solution" for al-Assad to step aside. Asked about suggestions that the United States needs to arm the rebels, Nuland said it still isn't the preference.

"We don't believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarization of Syria. What we don't want to see is the spiral of violence increase," Nuland said in a Tuesday press briefing. "That said, if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures."

Carney used similar language in his Tuesday press conference.

"I'm not ruling out potential future actions, but there is an opportunity that still exists, we believe, for a peaceful transition to occur in Syria," Carney. "And we don't want to contribute to the further militarization there."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently suggested that beyond humanitarian aid and diplomatic solutions, "we need to think about contingencies as well."

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the possibility of arming the Syrian rebels must be on the table.

"There's lots of ways of getting weapons and assistance to the resistance there besides the United States direct shipment of arms," Arizona Senator John McCain said in an interview that aired Monday on Situation Room. "I believe they need medical, technical and all kinds of assistance and every option should be on the table, including the way to get weapons to them."

Both the U.S. military and intelligence community have expressed concern about providing arms to an opposition whose composition is still unclear.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that talk about arming rebels is "premature."

"There's indications that al Qaeda is involved and that they're interested in supporting the opposition," Gen. Martin Dempsey said Sunday. "There's a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this issue. And until we're a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper raised similar concerns last week in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The opposition, Clapper suggested, is feuding internally about who will lead it and has been infiltrated by al Qaeda. He said the Free Syrian Army is made up of disparate groups with no centralized "command and control."

"The opposition groups in many cases may not be aware they (al Qaeda operatives) are there," Clapper told the committee.

Still, Dempsey said, the military is readying options should the United States need them - even though the challenges with Syria are formidable.

"They are very capable. They have a very sophisticated, integrated air defense system, for example. They have chemical and biological weapons. Now, they haven't demonstrated any interest or any intent to use those, but it is a very different military problem," Dempsey said.

"That said, of course, we're looking at all of that," he said. "We're trying to, you know, gather the best intelligence we can and take a look at what options we might have, should we be asked to provide those to the national command authority in this country. But we haven't been asked to do that yet."

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Filed under: Assad • Clinton • Diplomacy • Middle East • Military • Syria
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