Obama moves to help Syrian rebels

Obama is moving cautiously toward greater support for Syrian rebels.

Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - In his first year in office, US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeking a new start to a long-strained relationship.

In his third year, Obama demanded that Assad step down.

Now, nearing the end of his first term, with a presidential election looming in November, Obama is moving cautiously toward greater support for Syrian rebels, as international diplomatic efforts that had been Obama's first preference falter.

Reuters has learned that the White House has crafted a presidential directive, called a "finding," that would authorise greater covert assistance for the rebels, while still stopping short of arming them.

It is not clear whether Obama has signed the document, and US officials declined to comment on the finding, which is a highly classified authorisation for covert activity.

But in recent days, the Obama administration has signalled publicly it plans more help for the rebels.

"I have to say that we are also increasing our efforts to assist the opposition," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday.

The administration is seeking ways to help Assad's opponents by increasing supplies of communications equipment and sharing intelligence about Assad's troop movements.

The United States has already sent encrypted radios.

The administration is also trying to help the rebels become better organised, planning for when Assad falls, and keenly monitoring Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles to ensure they are secure.

Clinton hinted this week that if the rebels could control a swathe of Syrian territory from which to operate, more US and allied backing would follow.

Obama, now more actively trying to help oust Assad, began his approach to Syria with an olive branch, part of a larger presidential policy of reaching out to long-time adversaries during his first year in office.

Obama sent Assad a letter in those early months talking about the potential for change in the relationship, "our being open to it, our being interested in it, but it would have to be a two-way street," a former administration official recalled.

Obama talked about concerns but also the "potential to transform the relationship if he (Assad) was open to taking real steps," the former official said.

Senior U.S. officials were dispatched to Damascus for talks with Syrian officials. In 2010, Obama nominated Robert Ford to be ambassador to Syria, a post that had been vacant.