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Obama aides split on arming Syria rebels

Jun 13, 2013 - The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Despite growing alarm over the Syrian government's military advances, Obama administration officials are split over whether to arm the country's rebel forces or make other military moves that would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict.

President Barack Obama's top national security advisers met at the White House on Wednesday to air their differences. 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's 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 divided 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.

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