US close to OK on arming Syrian rebels: Reports

U.S. airpower to enforce a no-fly zone over the nation ripped by two years of civil war.

Washington | Published on:June 10, 2013 9:19 am

The Obama administration could decide this week to approve lethal aid for Syrian rebels and will weigh the merits of a less likely move to send U.S. airpower to enforce a no-fly zone over the nation ripped by two years of civil war,officials said Sunday.

White House meetings are planned as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces are apparently poised for an attack on the key city of Homs,which could cut off armed opposition from the south of the country and clear a path for the regime from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. Officials believe as many as 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are now in Syria helping the regime after it captured the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week.

Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face devastating,irreversible losses without greater support. Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip Monday to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in White House discussions,said officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. Any intervention would bring the U.S. closer to a conflict that has killed almost 80,000 people since Assad cracked down on protesters inspired by the Arab Spring in March 2011 and has been increasingly defined by sectarian clashes between the Sunni-led rebellion and Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime.

U.S. officials said President Barack Obama was leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted,moderate rebel units. The U.S. has spoken of possibly arming the opposition in recent months but has been hesitant because it doesn’t want al-Qaida-linked and other extremists to end up with the weapons. Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require U.S. troops on the ground. Other options such as deploying U.S. air power to ground the regime’s jets,gunships and other aerial assets are now being more seriously debated,the officials said,while cautioning that a no-fly zone or any other action involving U.S. military deployments in Syria are far less likely right now.

The president has declared chemical weapons use by the Assad regime a ”red line” for more forceful U.S. action. American allies including France and Britain have said they’ve determined with near certitude that Syrian forces have used low levels of sarin in several attacks,but the administration is still studying the evidence. The U.S. officials said responses that will be considered in this week’s meetings concern the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria,independent of final confirmation of possible chemical weapons use.

White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Obama’s advisers were considering all options to hasten a transition in Syria. “The United States will continue to look for ways to strengthen the capabilities of the Syrian opposition,” she said. Intervention would essentially pit the U.S. alongside regional allies Saudi Arabia,Turkey and Qatar in a proxy war against Iran,which is providing much of the materiel to the Syrian government’s counterinsurgency and,through Hezbollah,more and more of the manpower.

Syria’s precarious position in the heart of the Middle East makes the conflict extremely unpredictable. Lebanon,across the western border,suffered its own brutal civil war …continued »

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