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US inching closer to favoring arms for Syria rebels

The US has so far used diplomacy to put pressure on the regime of Syria President Assad. But as the death toll mounts, the Obama administration's opposition to arming Syria rebels may be softening.

By Staff writer / February 22, 2012

Syrian rebels aim during a weapons training exercise outside Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 14.

AP/File

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Washington

The United States is inching closer in favor of arming Syria's rebels, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares for a gathering in Tunisia Friday of Western and Arab countries favoring regime change in Syria.

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So far in Syria’s year-old uprising, the US has focused on diplomatic measures for pressuring the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. That preference for diplomacy probably has some life left in it, most foreign policy experts say.

But the Obama administration's opposition to arming the rebels appears to be softening, as civilian casualties mount under continued bombardment of rebel strongholds by Assad forces and with news Wednesday that two Western journalists holed up in the Syrian city of Homs were killed by mortar fire.

No automatic triggers exist that would cause the US to shift to open support of an international effort to arm the rebels, regional experts say.

“Given the strong opposition the administration has expressed to arming the opposition and to feeding the fires of Syria’s conflict, it doesn’t seem likely they’d turn on a dime and suddenly favor that,” says Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “At the same time,” he adds, “I think they want to let all the parties know they have other strategies to turn to if the diplomatic measures they prefer fail to produce.”

On Tuesday both the White House and the State Department said the US still wants to avoid actions that could contribute to Syria’s “militarization,” but hinted that “additional measures” could become necessary at some point if Mr. Assad fails to yield and the repression continues. So far, between 7,000 and 8,000 people have died in the Syria uprising against the Assad government, rights groups say, noting precise figures are hard to come by because information is hard to verify. 

But that point doesn’t seem to have arrived yet for the White House, says Mr. Danin. The US is “coming late” to focus on Syria for a number of reasons – intervention fatigue, a focus on domestic issues, deep concerns over the geopolitical ramifications of an imploding Syria – so now the administration’s attention “has an air of improvisation” to it.

“I certainly don’t see a road map or an escalatory ladder,” he says.   

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