By Elise Labott and Adam Levine
The White House knocked down a proposal last summer from top national security leaders, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus, to arm Syrian rebels, according to U.S. officials, one of whom said the issue appears dead for now.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said in testimony to a Senate committee on Thursday that they also backed the plan to provide weapons to opposition fighters.
But officials, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a sensitive subject, said the White House rejected the idea.
"The reason we have not armed them is because the White House has no appetite for it," a U.S. official familiar with the deliberations told CNN.
The official said the ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was among those in the State Department who "advocated for it pretty strongly."
The issue of arming the rebels "is dead in the water for now because folks are resigned to the fact that White House will not budge," the official added.
The Obama administration has resisted arming the rebels, citing concerns about the infiltration of extremists groups who could possibly use those weapons against other targets.
For now, the U.S. government has provided millions in humanitarian aid to the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The CIA has also sent agents to vet the opposition group to try to better understand its composition.
The United States in December designated a key Syrian rebel group, the al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist entity.
U.S. officials argued it was a necessary step that would not weaken the ability of other rebels to combat the Syrian military.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Panetta and Dempsey were asked by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the leading Republican proponent of a more aggressive backing of Syrian rebels, whether they supported the idea of arming them.
"We do," answered Panetta.
"We did," answered Dempsey.
They did not get a chance to explain as McCain moved on to another topic. But later in the hearing Panetta and Dempsey said they supported the president's decision to give non-lethal aide only.
"Obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it non-lethal," Panetta said.
But McCain used the brief answers to urge President Barack Obama to consider the plan, saying in a statement that "the time to act is long overdue, but it is not too late."
"The crisis in Syria represents a graphic failure of American leadership. I urge the president to heed the advice of his former and current national security leaders and immediately take the necessary steps, along with our friends and allies, that could hasten the end of the conflict in Syria," McCain said in the statement.
State Department Victoria Nuland declined to comment when asked about the matter, calling it an internal policy deliberation. The White House also refused to comment.
Obama spoke last month about hesitation to get more involved in the civil war in Syria.
"Syria is a classic example of where our involvement, we want to make sure that not only does it enhance U.S. security, but also that it is doing right by the people of Syria and neighbors like Israel that are going to be profoundly affected by it. And - and so it's true sometimes that we don't just shoot from the hip," he told CBS News.