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Officials: Obama aides split on arming rebels

Jun. 12, 2013 - 04:43PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s top national security advisers met Wednesday to air their reservations about arming Syria’s rebels, with officials acknowledging that the growing alarm over the Assad regime’s rapid military advance is unlikely to translate into any U.S. policy shift toward deeper involvement in the conflict.

The administration’s caution persists despite its nearly two-year-old demand that President Bashar Assad step down, its vows to help the besieged Syrian rebels on the ground and its threats to respond to any chemical weapons use. U.S. officials had hoped this week to reach a decision on arming the rebels to halt the violence and motivate the government and the opposition to hold peace talks.

But they are still uncertain whether that is the best way to reshape a war that now includes Hezbollah and Iranian fighters backing Assad’s armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists backing the rebellion.

“Nobody wins in Syria the way things are going,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Wednesday after meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “The people lose and Syria as a country loses. And what we have been pushing for, all of us involved in this effort, is a political solution that ends the violence, saves Syria, stops the killing and destruction of the entire nation.”

Despite increased support in Congress and the administration for lethal aid, officials said those closest to the president are still split on whether to begin providing Syria’s armed opposition with weapons or to consider more drastic steps such as using U.S. airpower to ground Assad’s gunships and jets. The officials spoke ahead of Wednesday’s meeting at the White House on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the private talks. Kerry, too, said he wouldn’t predict the outcome of the discussions.

Obama’s moves throughout the 27-month civil war, from political support for the opposition to nonlethal aid for its more moderate fighters, have occurred in close concert with America’s partners in Europe. All agree at this point that the efforts haven’t done enough. After meeting Kerry at the State Department, Hague also stressed the need for a political solution to end the fighting that has now killed some 80,000 people, without outlining how his government might contribute.

Kerry, who postponed a trip this week to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in the White House talks, is believed to be among the most forward-leaning members of Obama’s national security leadership. Since becoming America’s top diplomat in February, he has spoken regularly about the need to change Assad’s calculation that he can win the war militarily, if only to get him into serious discussions with the opposition about establishing a transitional government. Assad’s stunning military success last week at Qusair, near the Lebanese border, and preparations for offensives against Homs and Aleppo have made the matter more urgent.

Obama was flying from Massachusetts to Florida on Wednesday and wouldn’t be at the meeting. It was unclear whether he would participate by videoconference. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and several other top aides of the president were expected to attend.

Despite foreshadowing a possible move toward lethal aid for weeks, officials said some officials at the White House, the Pentagon and in the intelligence community remained hesitant about providing weapons, ammunition or other lethal support to a rebellion increasingly defined by extremists who, along with Assad, have turned a political insurrection into a sectarian war. Instead, they’ve focused on nonlethal support, such as Wednesday’s decision by the Treasury Department to ease restrictions on Syrian telecommunications, agricultural and petroleum transactions that benefit the opposition.

“We have refocused our efforts on figuring out what to do to help the opposition on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, citing the battle at Qusair as well as the influx of Lebanese Hezbollah and other foreign fighters as reasons for why the U.S. was rethinking its approach.

Even if nothing is decided this week, officials said the U.S., Britain and France, who together spearheaded the international intervention that helped overthrow Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, were trying to coordinate a common approach before Obama meets with his colleagues at next week’s G-8 gathering of world leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful military and political backer, also will be present at the Northern Ireland summit.

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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