WASHINGTON (AFP) – Washington is weighing expanding support for Syrian rebels by having the Pentagon take charge of arming the opposition instead of a clandestine effort by the CIA, officials said Wednesday.
“It’s under consideration,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“If and how [it would be done] are both questions being discussed,” the official told AFP.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the possible change on Wednesday.
After concluding in June that the Syrian regime used sarin gas in a small-scale attack, President Barack Obama’s administration decided to start supplying weapons to the rebels through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
But after another alleged chemical weapons attack on a larger scale — and as lawmakers debate whether to endorse Obama’s call for military action against the regime — the administration is looking at ratcheting up support for the rebels, two U.S. officials said.
Lawmakers have complained that promised weapons have yet to arrive, putting the opposition at a disadvantage against President Bashar al-Assad’s heavily-armed forces.
Obama’s deputies at hearings Wednesday and Thursday acknowledged the holdup, while suggesting the administration was open to additional assistance for the rebels.
Although the administration was focused on possible strikes to “deter” Assad’s regime from employing chemical weapons, it was ready to examine how to provide more help to the opposition, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators on Tuesday.
“I think that subsequent to that [military action], we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a — in a more overt way,” he said.
Under the CIA, support for the rebels is deemed covert and details of the assistance remain secret. If the Pentagon took over, however, the cost and scope of the aid would no longer be classified.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along with Dempsey, acknowledged that the opposition was still waiting for some military help.
“There are things that haven’t gotten there yet,” Kerry said.
On Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the top U.S. diplomat called for ramping up support for the “moderate” opposition.
“I continue to believe that the moderate opposition is key to Syria’s future and that we must redouble our efforts to support them as soon as possible,” he said.
The administration has been cautious in its approach to the rebels, citing concerns about Islamist extremists in the ranks with links to Al-Qaeda.
And delays in delivering weapons have reportedly been due to vetting efforts by the CIA.
But the suspected chemical weapons attack two weeks ago that allegedly killed hundreds has led the administration to consider expanding the scope of its support with more weapons and training, possibly with the help of U.S. special forces.
If a decision is made, the change would not occur overnight, the U.S. official said.
“It’s a process that would take some time,” the official said.
Senator John McCain, who has urged military intervention in Syria, said he had asked the president in a meeting Monday about the CIA’s delays in supplying weapons to rebels.
According to McCain, Obama confirmed the problem and told him “that that’s going to change.”