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Administration mum on claims CIA helping steer arms to Syrian opposition

 

The Obama administration did not deny claims Thursday that the CIA has taken on a greater role in responding to the Syrian uprising, following an article that said a handful of agents in Turkey are helping allies determine which opposition fighters should and should not receive arms. 

Administration officials were adamant that the United States, as has been its policy all along, is not providing "lethal assistance" to the opposition. 

But they did not respond directly to claims in The New York Times that CIA officers in Turkey are helping broker weapons transfers into Syria -- to ensure arms do not fall into the wrong hands, like militants affiliated with Al Qaeda. 

The Times reported that CIA agents have been in Turkey for several weeks, helping screen potential arms recipients while also establishing new contacts in Syria. 

One source familiar with the situation on the ground told Fox News that Turkish authorities reached out to the CIA for assistance, as part of an effort to expand its existing intelligence network in Syria. 

The CIA is assisting the Turks with money and technology, including surveillance equipment, while also helping prevent weapons from reaching militant groups which may be mingled in the Syrian opposition, the source said. 

The Times report coincided with an article in Britain's Guardian that claimed Britain and the U.S. are open to offering Syria's Bashar al-Assad safe passage and potential clemency in exchange for joining transition talks. 

The administration had little to say about that report as well. 

"It is not for us to decide that," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday when asked about the possibility of an Assad deal. 

He added: "Assad has no place in Syria's future." 

The developments Thursday indicated the U.S. is becoming increasingly involved in pressing for a transition in Syria. President Obama recently pressed world leaders, including Syria's historical ally Russia, at this week's G-20 summit in Mexico to consolidate pressure on Assad. 

Carney reiterated Thursday that the U.S. provides humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. As for the Times report, he said he cannot discuss "intelligence matters," but said "that as a general matter ... that part of this period of helping the opposition consolidate itself has been one where we have evaluated who makes up the opposition." 

Carney noted some elements are "not necessarily friendly" to the U.S. 

It was unclear to what extent the U.S. might be picking through those groups to determine their eligibility for weapons from other countries.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. is "not providing lethal assistance" to the opposition. Asked whether anyone from the U.S. government, though, is helping coordinate that assistance, he said the focus continues to be diplomatic and economic pressure, and humanitarian aid. 

Asked whether that was a denial, Little said: "I said what I said, and that is that there is no lethal assistance being provided by the United States to the Syrian opposition." 

Meanwhile, administration officials on Thursday played up the case of a Syrian fighter pilot who flew his plane to Jordan and asked for asylum. 

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland claimed there have been "hundreds" of defections, including the latest case of Col. Hassan Hammadeh. 

Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Justin Fishel contributed to this report.

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