By Jamie Crawford with reporting from Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Pam Benson
The United States is closely watching how rebel forces operate inside Syria, and what their end objectives might be as the Obama administration weighs whether or not to provide arms to the Syrian opposition.
"Will providing arms to the opposition convince the people who support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, in many cases because they are afraid of their own existence, or will it simply lead to more fighting - that is the question that we are considering," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said during a panel discussion in Washington on Thursday on the crisis in Syria.
"Arms are not a strategy, arms are a tactic," Ford said about the deliberation the administration is undertaking on the question, and that a "military solution" is not the best path forward for Syria.
"The president has never taken the provision of arms off the table," he said. "And so, as we think about our policy of sending arms or not, and today we do not, we want to make sure that tactic plays into and helps us achieve a strategy of enabling the Syrian people to reach a political solution."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday the United States is not providing surface-to-air missiles, which have been seen used by the rebels.
The United States has not provided any support to the armed opposition, said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
"Our position on assistance to the Syrian opposition has not changed. The United States remains committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and providing non-lethal equipment and training to unarmed, civilian-led opposition groups," Vietor said in an e-mail.
The question comes as the international community studies a new umbrella group comprised of Syrian opposition elements fighting for political change inside Syria. The United States has not yet endorsed the group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition. Both the Britain and France have made that recognition already.
"We would like to see them continue to develop as an organization, as a coalition that are making real progress and I expect that our position with them will evolve as they themselves develop," Ford, who was present at the group's unveiling in Qatar earlier this month said Thursday. "I want to be very clear that we welcome the establishment of the coalition and that we will work with them."
Obama administration officials told CNN a decision has yet to be made on whether to formally recognize the opposition group. Officials say an upcoming meeting later this month of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group in Marrakesh, Morocco, would be a logical date for an announcement.
But that recognition would be contingent on the group strengthening its organizational structure, and forming technical committees on issues such as health and agriculture that could go about the process of establishing government structures in parts of the country that are liberated and putting in place a template of governance that would represent the broad cross-section of religious and ethnic groups inside Syria.
"That is an opportunity for them," an administration official told CNN about the upcoming meeting. "They know that the world is going to be seeing them at the Friends of the Syrian people meeting, so we'll just have to see how much progress they make between now and then."
And while efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition continue, the continued presence of extremists exploiting the situation is still a major concern for the United States.
Extremists "are absolutely there, and I think frankly their presence is growing stronger," Ford said, adding that included a front operating for al Qaeda. "We have certainly raised in our discussions with other countries the importance of isolating extremists and not helping them. Those are the conversations that continue."
Those discussions are also likely to include conversations with countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are supplying weapons to rebels on the ground inside Syria. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Qatar was in the process of providing a small number of shoulder-fired missiles to rebels to target aerial resources of the Assad regime.
Such a development could be seen as something of an equalizer Ford said in terms of complicating Assad's prosecution of a civil war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
But the use of such weapons would be unlikely to usher in the sort of game-changer that would bring about the downfall of the regime, and a new political order for Syria.
"I don't think the mere presence of shoulder fired missiles is going to lead the people who are fighting for Bashar al-Assad to stop fighting for Bashar al-Assad," Ford said.
But a U.S. official told CNN the "armed opposition is maturing" and having an impact on the regime.
"It's making important tactical gains that could eventually trigger a strategic shift in the conflict," the official said. "They haven't reached that point yet, but the span of regime control is narrowing, and Assad's forces are having greater difficulty beating back the insurgents' progress."
Ford is still operating as the U.S. envoy to Syria from his office in Washington. He left his post in Damascus last February when the United States closed its embassy due to the deteriorating security situation.
CNN's Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Pam Benson contributed to this report