CIA Acts In Syria, Slipping Weapons To Rebels In Secret

As diplomatic talks in Geneva have failed to resolve the three-year-old civil war in Syria, the U.S. is undertaking a new covert program to send weapons in support of rebel forces there.

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The relentless use of conventional weapons by Syria's government against its citizens may have pushed Washington to step up its involvement there. A new covert U.S. program is sending arms to Syria to help rebel forces. Another reason for that new effort: the failure of diplomatic talks in Geneva to resolve the three-year-old civil war. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has learned details of the arms program.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: An American-made anti-tank weapon appears in a recent Syrian rebel video posted on YouTube. A Syrian rebel hidden in the brush on a rock outcropping aims the missile and fires.

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BOWMAN: Sources tells NPR these missiles are the first heavy weapons that the Obama administration is providing to the Syrian rebels, part of a secret CIA program. Dozens of these anti-tank weapons - called TOWs - have arrived in northern Syria, maybe by way of Saudi Arabia.

CHARLES CARIS: The U.S. would have had to have approved these TOWs. I think what you're seeing is really the early stages of a pilot program.

BOWMAN: That's Charles Caris. He's a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank which supports aiding the rebels. Sources say the White House is prepared send more TOW missiles and small arms. The Pentagon is drawing up plans to train Syrian rebels in Jordan. The White House is also debating whether to ship shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down Syria's helicopters, now dropping barrel bombs on rebel forces. Charles Caris says that would signal a major escalation in U.S. involvement and could help the rebels even the odds against Assad. Some members of Congress think it's a bad idea to send weapons to the Syrian opposition. Senator Angus King of Maine worries they could fall into the hands of rebels linked to al-Qaida.

SENATOR ANGUS KING: At the end of the day it's very hard to have any confidence that the weapons we supply, if we were to supply them, would stay in the right hands.

BOWMAN: Some officials say any kind of lethal aid comes too late. It might have helped two years ago when the CIA, Pentagon, and State Department favored supporting the rebels, but the White House refused. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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