WASHINGTON — President 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.
U.S. officials said the issue was shelved in October after an extended analysis by the CIA concluded 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. Some U.S. and outside experts have argued that the provision of weapons to selected rebel groups could help empower and build loyalty among pro-Western factions.
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate panel Thursday they had backed the proposal to arm the rebels. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was also said to be in favor of the plan.
Officials from several allied governments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were convinced last summer that the administration was moving in a new direction, with the majority of top national-security officials in favor of providing weapons.
When a change in policy did not occur by September, many concluded Obama wanted to wait until after he was re-elected.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the subject has not been revisited since the decision was made and there were no plans to reconsider it.
But the division exposed by Panetta and Dempsey was rare among the tight circle of Obama national-security advisers. Administration officials have voiced increasing concern about infiltration of rebel ranks by Islamic extremists, including some affiliated with al-Qaida.
In the case of the mobile surface-to-air missiles, one official said, “We wouldn’t even consider it, because God forbid they would be used against an Israeli aircraft.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed the administration’s caution Friday. “We have had to be very careful,” he said. “We don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States. We also need to make sure that any support we are providing actually makes a difference in pressuring (Syrian President Bashar) Assad.”
Of those who favored some level of weapons supply during last year’s discussions, only Dempsey will remain on Obama’s national-security team in the second term. Petraeus resigned as CIA director last fall before the agency analysis was completed, and Clinton left last week. Panetta will depart soon.
On Friday, new Secretary of State John Kerry would not give his view of the debate or whether he took a position on it as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But he said the U.S. approach to Syria is under discussion, a possible reference to an interagency review this spring.
“We are evaluating now,” Kerry said at the State Department. “We’re taking a look at what steps, if any — diplomatic, particularly — might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation.”