By Jill Dougherty
The president's top diplomat said Friday he wasn't looking "backwards" at the White House quashing of a proposal last summer to arm the Syrian rebels, but was instead looking at what the United States will do regarding helping the opposition.
Last summer President Barack Obama's national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, backed a proposal to provide weapons to Syrian rebels but, U.S. officials told CNN on Thursday, the White House blocked the idea.
That rift was unexpectedly revealed Thursday in testimony on Capitol Hill. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, asked Panetta and Dempsey: "Did you support the recommendation by Secretary of State - then-Secretary of State Clinton and then-head of CIA General Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Do you support that?
Both Panetta and Dempsey said they supported the proposal, later revealing it was the president who opted not to provide lethal support.
"Obviously there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it nonlethal," Panetta said.
Asked Friday to comment on divisions in the administration over arming Syrian rebels, Secretary of State John Kerry refused to be drawn into the controversy.
"I'm not going to go backwards," he said. "I'm the new secretary of state and we're going forward from this point."
But, he added, "We are evaluating right now. We're taking a look at what steps, if any - diplomatic particularly - might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation."
For now,the White House seems to have shut the door on one idea that involved arming Syrian rebels vetted by CIA agents already on the ground in neighboring countries.
At his November 14 press conference, Obama presented the rationale that became the administration's mantra: "We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition, and one of the things that we have to be on guard about - particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures - is that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm, or do Israelis harm, or otherwise engage in actions that are detrimental to our national security."
Frederic Hof, who was Obama's special adviser for Syria until last September, said Friday "It's more complicated than just 'arm the rebels.'"
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hof said there are "legitimate questions" about who would end up using the weapons, as well as about weapon proliferation. It's an "enormous challenge," he said, to "make sure the people we think ought to have arms get them; try to make sure the people we think should not have arms don't get them. This is easier said than done."
The administration is facing a dilemma, said Hof: "The thing it's really wrestling with here is that it has an objective: bring about a peaceful, managed transition." And yet all indications are that "the future of Syria - near-, mid-, long-term - is very likely going to be decisively influenced by men with weapons on the ground."
McCain, calling for arming the rebels, said, "The time to act is long overdue, but it is not too late."
It's not too late, Frederic Hof believes, but, "The United States will not have the luxury of standing aloof from what is happening in Syria, under any circumstances."
But with Syria rapidly turning into a failed state, he said, "One way or the other the United States - and I don't like the phrase - but one way or another the United States is going to be sucked into this."