WASHINGTON/BEIRUT – President Barack Obama is preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition and has taken steps to assert more aggressive U.S. leadership among allies and partners seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad, according to senior administration officials.
The officials emphasized that supplying arms is one of several options under consideration and that political negotiation remains the preferred option. To that end, the administration has launched an effort to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that the probable use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government — and the more direct outside intervention that could provoke — should lead him to reconsider his support of Assad.
But Obama, who spoke by telephone with Putin on Monday and is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow in the coming days, is likely to make a final decision on the supply of arms to the opposition within weeks, before a scheduled meeting with Putin in June, officials said.
Confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, Obama said Tuesday, would mean that “there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”
At a news conference, he emphasized the need to “make sure I’ve got the facts. . . . If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support” additional action. Administration officials have made repeated reference to the George W. Bush administration’s inaccurate claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Yet even as Obama voiced caution in responding to what he has called the “red line” on chemical weapons use, officials described him as ready to move on what one described as the “left-hand side” of a broad spectrum that ranged from “arming the opposition to boots on the ground.”
“We’re clearly on an upward trajectory,” the senior official said. “We’ve moved over to assistance that has a direct military purpose.”
Officials did not specify what U.S. equipment is under consideration, although the rebels have specifically requested antitank weapons and surface-to-air missiles.
Meanwhile, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group said Tuesday that rebels will not be able to defeat Assad’s regime militarily, strongly suggesting that Syria’s “real friends” including his Iranian-backed militant group would intervene on the government’s side if the need arises.
The powerful Shiite Muslim group is known to be backing Syrian regime fighters in Shiite villages near the Lebanon border against the mostly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad. But the comments by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah were the strongest indication yet that his group was ready to get more substantially involved to rescue Assad’s embattled regime.
“Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall in the hands of America or Israel or the Takfiris,” he said, referring to followers of an al-Qaida-like extremist ideology.
Nasrallah said there are now no Iranian forces in Syria, except for some experts who he said have been in Syria for decades. But he added: “What do you imagine would happen in the future if things deteriorate in a way that requires the intervention of the forces of resistance in this battle?”
Syria’s neighbors and, according to recent polls, the American public oppose the insertion of U.S. troops in a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people. Such a move remains highly unlikely barring a spillover of the conflict into major regional instability, significant use of chemical weapons or indications that those weapons are falling into the hands of al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants fighting alongside Syrian opposition forces.
American and allied military and contract personnel have been training Jordanian and rebel forces to deal with the chemical weapons threat. U.S. intelligence also has tried to contact Syrian government units charged with protecting the weapons to warn against their use, and U.N. experts are preparing to secure chemical sites in the event of a negotiated ceasefire.
But the senior official, one of several who discussed internal administration deliberations on the condition of anonymity, said Obama has “not closed the door to other military actions,” in response to calls from the opposition and some members of Congress for protection against Syrian ballistic missiles and airstrikes.
Asked about the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas in Syria, the official said the administration was “reviewing all options.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday repeated his long-held reservations about a no-fly zone, emphasizing that it is more complicated and riskier than advocates believe. “I have to assume . . . that a potential adversary is not just going to sit back” and allow its air defense systems to be destroyed, Dempsey said at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Syria’s air defenses, located in populated areas in the western part of the country, are “much denser and more sophisticated” than those confronted by the international coalition that intervened in Libya during its 2011 conflict, he said. Establishing a no-fly zone in Syria would require air bases in the region, the positioning of substantial search and rescue resources for downed pilots, and the ability to sustain operations for the long term in a time of fiscal constraint and readiness concerns, Dempsey said.
The administration has been edging its way toward provision of weapons to the rebels for several months, first announcing that it would provide nonlethal assistance in the form of food and medical supplies directly to opposition military forces and more recently indicating that it would send defensive gear such as body armor and night-vision goggles.
Since then, several factors have influenced the president’s thinking, according to officials.
Partner nations, including Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Britain, have urged the United States, and Obama directly in recent meetings, to take a more active role in helping the Syrian rebels and leading coordination of what has been a somewhat diffuse effort by governments providing substantial humanitarian or military aid, or both.
Disputes among those countries, particularly between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, over which rebel military faction to back has led to rising U.S. concern that sophisticated weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, are being sent directly to Islamist extremist groups. The administration is not prepared to send missiles, but it believes it can gain more control over others’ supplies if it puts what an official called “more skin in the game” by sending lethal equipment.
Close allies Britain and France also have moved out ahead of the United States with calls for the European Union to drop its arms embargo against Syria and indications that they are prepared to send weaponry.