Protesters demonstrated against western intervention in Syria on Saturday, outside the U.S. embassy in central London

Lefteris Pitarakis • Associated Press,

Obama plan to arm rebels came after lengthy debate

  • Article by: Karen DeYoung, Anne Gearan and Scott Wilson
  • Washington Post
  • June 15, 2013 - 7:01 PM


President Obama’s decision to begin arming the Syrian rebels followed more than a year of internal debate over whether it was worth the dual risks of involving the United States in another war and seeing U.S. weapons fall into the hands of extremist groups among the rebels.

The White House said the final push came this week after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with “high certainty” that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons against the rebels.

But U.S. officials said that the determination to send weapons had been made weeks ago and that the chemical weapons finding provided fresh justification.

As Syrian government forces, with the help of Hezbollah and Iranian militias, began to turn the war in Assad’s favor after rebel gains during the winter, Obama ordered officials in late April to begin planning what weaponry to send and how to deliver it.

That decision effectively ended the lengthy disagreement among those in the White House — primarily Obama’s political advisers — who argued that providing arms would be a slippery slope to greater involvement, military leaders who said it would be too risky and expensive, and State Department officials who insisted that Syria and the region would collapse in chaos if action were not taken.

Even after Thursday’s announcement, critics in Washington, rebel leaders and even some U.S. allies described the prospect of sending light arms and ammunition as disappointing. The rebels have asked for armor-piercing and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as other heavy equipment.

What will U.S. provide?

The administration has continued to deflect questions about what equipment it will provide. Any use of the U.S. military “would be things we could discuss in great detail,” Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Friday. But “when you get into questions of provision of assistance to opposition groups, we are just more limited in our ability to say, well, here is a list.”

In taking a modest first step onto Syria’s battlefield, Obama is joining a proxy war far more complicated than it was even a few months ago. It now features the United States and its European and Arab allies on one side, and Russia, Iran and its sponsored militias on the other in support of Assad.

The rapidly shifting balance has made untenable the peace talks proposed last month by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart.

With the opposition in a position of weakness, and little immediate incentive for Assad to agree to any deal requiring him to give up power, talks initially scheduled for late May are now unlikely to take place before fall, according to officials and diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The topic will be taken up by leaders of the Group of Eight, who convene Monday in Northern Ireland. Obama will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the summit’s sidelines. On Friday, Russian officials called the evidence of chemical weapons use shared by the administration and its European allies inconclusive.

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