In his first news conference as secretary of state, John Kerry said Friday that the United States is evaluating new options to halt Syria’s civil war, but he refused to weigh into administration debates over whether to arm the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime.
But President Barack Obama is unlikely to shift his stance against the expansion of a U.S. role in Syria’s civil war, despite a death toll topping 60,000 and acknowledgment that key members of his national security staff favored a plan first proposed in June to arm the Syrian rebels.
The White House on Friday defended its decision not to endorse a CIA plan to arm the Syrian rebels, saying it was worried that U.S. weapons could “fall into the wrong hands." In his remarks, press secretary Jay Carney specifically mentioned danger to “our ally Israel" as one of the reasons Obama rejected providing lethal aid to rebels fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Critics have assailed the administration for not sending arms to the rebel fighters, but Carney noted there is “no shortage of weapons in the country."
U.S. officials said the issue was shelved in October after an extended “red team" analysis by the CIA concluded that the limited-range weaponry the administration was comfortable providing would not have “tipped the scales" for the opposition.
Syrian opposition forces already had sufficient quantities of light weaponry from other outside sources and raids of government depots, the analysis determined. The question of providing shoulder-launched missiles to shoot down government aircraft, officials said, was never considered.
It remained unclear whether senior officials who backed the plan, first proposed during the summer by then-CIA director David Petraeus, were comfortable with Obama’s decision not to move ahead with it. Some U.S. and outside experts have argued that the provision of weapons to selected rebel groups, even if they are superfluous, could help empower and build loyalty among pro-Western factions.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress Thursday they had backed the proposal to arm the rebels. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was also said to be in favor of the plan.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal administration deliberations, said the subject has not been revisited since the decision was made and that there were no plans to reconsider it, even though the division exposed by Panetta and Dempsey was rare among the tight circle of Obama national security advisers.