Middle East

White House Defends Timing Of Decision To Help Syrian Rebels

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The White House will begin sending direct military aid to the Syrian opposition after concluding that the Syrian government has been using chemical weapons against rebel forces. For the past two years, President Obama has taken a cautious approach to the conflict and has been reluctant to intervene.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The Obama administration is defending both the scale and the timing of its decision to help arm the Syrian opposition. That announcement came late yesterday. The White House said the U.S. will start providing direct military aid to the rebels. Some members of Congress, including Republican Senator John McCain, say the U.S. needs to do even more to reverse fortunes on the battlefield, where the opposition has been losing ground.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Administration officials say President Obama had two reasons for dropping his longstanding resistance to arming the Syrian opposition. One, he wanted to punish Syrian President Bashar al Assad for crossing his red line by using chemical weapons. Aides say Obama also felt a growing need to shore up the Syrian opposition. Newly reinforced government troops routed the opposition from the town Qusayr near the Lebanese border last week, and they're now threatening rebels in Homs and Aleppo.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says this is not a step the president takes lightly.

BEN RHODES: Those are decisions that he's made over the course of the last several weeks, particularly as our assessment of chemical weapons use firmed up and as we saw a deteriorating situation in general with outside actors like Iran and Hezbollah getting involved.

HORSLEY: The White House has not said publically what kinds of weapons it will provide the Syrian rebels or whether they can get there quickly enough to make a difference now that the opposition is on the ropes. Some people, both inside and outside the administration, had been pushing for this kind of military aid since last summer.

But Rhodes says the slow pace of decision-making could have some advantages.

RHODES: We have relationships today in Syria that we didn't have six months ago that gives us greater certainty not just that we can get stuff into the country but also that we can put it in the right hands, so that's it's not falling into the hands of extremists.

HORSLEY: There's also a chance of more international action. The U.S. delivered evidence of Syria's chemical weapons use to the United Nations today. It's also likely to be a focus next week when Obama attends a summit of G8 countries in Northern Ireland. The White House is not ruling out more American military action, such as a no-fly zone. Some lawmakers say that's necessary to give the opposition forces time and space to recover.

Rhodes warns, however, imposing a no-fly zone would be dramatically more difficult and dangerous in Syria than it was in Libya. He says that might not be in the U.S. national interest. What's more, it might not help.

RHODES: Regime forces are intermingled with opposition forces and they're fighting in some instances block by block in cities. That's not a problem you can solve from the air.

HORSLEY: The administration has also taken off the table any large scale role for U.S. ground troops in Syria. Rhodes says we need to be humble about our ability to solve a problem like Syria, especially on our own. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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