US meets to discuss arming Syrian rebels

The US government is at an advanced stage of talks to install weapons to aid Syrian rebels.

A Free Syria fighter in Darkoush, Syria. Picture: Rahima Essop/EWN.

WASHINGTON - The United States could decide as early as this week whether to arm Syrian rebels, US officials said on Monday, as Secretary of State John Kerry put off a Middle East trip to attend meetings on the subject.

The battlefield has tilted against the rebels in the Syrian civil war as Lebanese Hezbollah has entered the fray on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helping his forces retake the strategic town of Qusair last week.

However, the White House has debated for months whether to give arms to the rebels and a US official stressed that while a decision was possible as early as this week, deliberations on the issue could easily take longer.

US officials are adamant that Washington will not put "boots on the ground," which means deploying troops.

Fredrick Hof, a former senior US official who worked on Syria policy, said the administration might decide to take charge of the distribution of weapons to the rebels, but not necessarily to provide US arms.

Hof, now an analyst at the Atlantic Council, said the White House might decide to take charge of the distribution of weapons to the rebels but not necessarily to provide US arms.

Having withdrawn US troops from Iraq and working to wind down the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has sought to avoid deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war.

The shift in the military momentum toward Assad has made it less likely that a US and Russian planned peace conference to bring the rebels and the government to the table for talks would yield a negotiated political transition to remove Assad from power.

With Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, gaining the upper hand, he has little incentive to give up power.

The renewed focus on Syria comes two years into the uprising against Assad that has seen at least 80,000 people killed and has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and Jordan and displaced millions within Syria.

CONSENSUS ELUSIVE

Kerry delayed plans to travel to Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week to attend what the State Department called "routine" meetings, including on the topic of Syria.

The United States and other governments are also weighing evidence that Assad's forces may have used chemical weapons; something Obama has said would cross a "red line."

This week's Syria meetings are not a sign that the Obama administration has received conclusive proof of chemical weapons use by Assad's forces or that it is ready to decide on a response, one US official said.

A consensus on whether or not to arm the rebels remains elusive, with US policymakers still wrestling with concerns that any American weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Also, growing controversy at home over the government's sweeping surveillance programs are expected to occupy much of Obama and his national security team's time.

A Western diplomatic source said the decision to arm the rebels was fraught with risks and could backfire.

"If you arm the rebels, there is a risk they fall into the wrong hands, but if you don't then thousands more could get massacred and you're left with Hezbollah versus Nusrah. Which is the worst risk? That's the political decision the leaders will need to decide," the diplomatic source said.

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Washington was looking at what more it can do to help the opposition, including assisting it to keep ground it has seized and retake ground from the government.

Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the Obama administration was continually looking at ways to strengthen the opposition but had nothing new to announce.

"We have prepared a wide range of options for the president's consideration, and internal meetings to discuss the situation in Syria are routine," Meehan said.

"The United States will continue to look for ways to strengthen the capabilities of the Syrian opposition, though we have no new announcements at this time."