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US military aid to Syria rebels: Why Obama is starting with the minimum

Obama's cautious shift away from providing only non-lethal assistance to Syria's rebels reflects continued deep misgivings about sending US arms into the war and a desire to keep a door open to diplomacy.

By Staff writer / June 14, 2013

President Obama arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, where he hosted a Father's Day luncheon. Speaking about Syria, the president said the use of chemical weapons in Syria crosses a 'red line,' triggering greater US involvement in the crisis.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

President Obama’s decision to send arms to Syria’s rebels is likely to start with the minimum necessary to make good on his pledge to “change the calculus” if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad were to resort to using his formidable chemical weapons stocks in the country’s civil war.

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After determining that Syrian forces used chemical weapons, including small amounts of the nerve gas sarin, in attacks earlier this year that killed as many as 150 people, the White House announced Thursday that Mr. Obama has decided to begin providing “military support” to Syria’s moderate rebels.

But at least initially, the US will provide only light weapons and ammunition, according to administration officials – not the heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons rebel leaders have been clamoring for. The military aid, to be coordinated by the CIA, might eventually include anti-tank weaponry, but anti-aircraft missiles seem less likely, despite the Assad regime’s stepped-up use of aerial bombardment in the war.

Also among the potential military options is implementation of a no-fly zone over parts of southern Syria abutting Jordan, but Obama has yet to sign off on that idea, officials said.

The White House made it clear that the president’s initial decision might only be the beginning of a deeper US involvement in Syria’s civil war.

“We’ve prepared for many contingencies in Syria,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, in discussing the determination of chemical weapons use with reporters Thursday. “We are going to make decisions on further actions on our own timeline.”

But Obama’s cautious shift away from providing only non-lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels reflects continued deep misgivings in the White House about sending US arms into the 26-month-old war, and about broadening the US role in a war that threatens increasingly to become a regional conflagration.

The administration continues to believe that a political settlement among Syria’s warring parties is the only solution to a conflict that has already claimed more than 90,000 lives – a view that has only been bolstered in recent weeks by significant gains on the ground by Assad forces.

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