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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Russians and their ally Syria have lashed out at the White House's claim that Syria has used the nerve gas sarin against rebels and civilians. The Obama administration announced this week it will arm rebels, after warning the Syrian president he had crossed a red line by using chemical weapons. The White House shared evidence with the Russians, but Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, told his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, that the evidence is not convincing.

The decision to send arms to the rebels is a shift in U.S. policy in the Syrian conflict. And it comes as the Syrian government has gained the upper hand, apparently, against the rebels on the battlefield. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us from Amman, Jordan. Deborah, thanks very much for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: The Russians, as we said, dismissed the White House claim, and said that a new policy to arm rebels would complicate any chance for a negotiated settlement. Is there a chance for that kind of settlement? Is there a diplomatic track, at the moment?

AMOS: Well, we're going to find out next week. The timing of the White House announcement comes just ahead of this face-to-face meeting between President Obama and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. They're going to meet at an economic summit. It's going to be a difficult conversation. For the first time, the Americans are signaling they are no longer on the sidelines. So the Russians say that the Americans are jeopardizing the peace talks. The Americans say the Russians continue to arm the Syrian regime. But both sides still are committed to a negotiated settlement.

Now, it appears that the White House's plan to arm the rebels comes after the Assad regime made great gains against the rebels in the town of Qusair. So everybody is looking to the north because the next place to watch is the city of Aleppo, the - Syrian's economic capital. And whether or not that city will fall to this combined assault by government forces and fighters from Hezbollah - the Iran-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon - if that city falls, Bashar al-Assad is in a very strong position in any peace talks, so strong that he may not go at all.

SIMON: Deborah, is it clear to you how quickly and how - and over what route - U.S. arms would begin to reach the rebels, in any case?

AMOS: Some of those steps, Scott, are playing out now. There is - meetings in Turkey, Western officials with Salim Idris. He's the commander of the Supreme Military Council. Idris was elected by rebel commanders last December. He's the favored commander by the West and Arab allies; considered a moderate. He is the one who will get those arms. His rebels have been vetted by Western intelligence agencies. He's going to ask for more, in those meetings. He needs to take out the helicopters, pierce those tanks; but he's not going to get everything he wants.

SIMON: When you say he's been vetted by Western intelligence agencies, Western governments are - in a nutshell - satisfied that the arms that his group has, won't eventually be deployed against American or European soldiers?

AMOS: Well, there are no guarantees, Scott; not on a battlefield like this. But Idris says he can keep those arms to his men. The problem is that his forces are not so large. We are in a conflict that has gone on for more than two years. The more radical elements have been able to get funding from private sources. They are armed much more strongly than Idris. The Americans - they say this themselves - are late to the game; now backing him, trying to build up this moderate force of rebels. It will be Idris' job to show that he can keep those arms to his people, and his people alone.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos, in Amman. Thanks very much for being with us.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott.

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