WASHINGTON – Discussions within the Obama administration in favor of providing arms to the Syrian rebels are gaining ground amid new indications that President Bashar Assad's regime may have launched additional chemical weapons attacks, U.S. and other diplomatic officials say.
As the number of suspected attacks grows, U.S. officials said intelligence agencies are seeing signs that Syrian opposition forces may be distancing themselves from the Al Qaeda-linked group there -- chipping away at one of the key arguments against giving lethal aid to the rebels. Yet, at the same time, the fighters associated with the extremist group are among the most effective against the regime. Assad displayed new confidence, going on the offensive in the hopes of taking advantage of ill will against the extremist group.
Officials insisted Wednesday that no decisions have been made but said arming the rebels is seen as more likely and preferable than any other military option. One U.S. official described a new "reconsideration" within the administration of the military options. The officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss publicly the options under consideration, said most U.S. leaders prefer that the Syrians determine their own fate, so arming the opposition is more palatable than direct U.S. intervention.
The administration announced last week that it believes Assad has used chemical weapons but said the intelligence wasn't clear enough to be certain that the regime has crossed President Barack Obama's announced "red line" of definite chemical weapons use that he said would have "enormous consequences" for Assad's government.
Some senior leaders, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are skeptical about the wisdom of providing arms to such a broad and complex mix of opposition groups. But officials say there is a growing realization that, under increasing pressure from Congress and other allied nations, the U.S. might soon have to do more for the Free Syrian Army.
The two-year civil war has left an estimated 70,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
High-level meetings on the latest developments in the issue have been going on all week, including one between Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who just returned from the Mideast.
According to a U.S. official and a U.N. diplomat, intelligence agencies are looking into allegations that chemical weapons were used in Syria after the two March 19 attacks that U.S., British, French and Qatari officials have referred to. They provided no details on the new alleged attacks.
This emerging shift within the administration comes even as Assad and his allies insisted that the momentum in the civil war is now in their favor and that the world's reluctance to intervene in the conflict is more evidence that the Assad regime is regaining its hold on the country.
Obama signaled Tuesday he would consider U.S. military action against Syria if "hard, effective evidence" is found to bolster intelligence that chemical weapons have been used in the civil war. Damascus has denied it has used chemical weapons, saying the Syrian rebels are trying to frame the regime.
The U.S. has provided humanitarian aid to the Syrians and helped bolster the defenses along the borders in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, but has preferred to let other nations send in more lethal assistance.
A key obstacle in the debate over providing weapons has been U.S. concerns that any U.S. weapons would end up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked groups helping the Syrian opposition or any of the other extremist groups in the region, such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
Last month, the head of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful and effective rebel groups in Syria, pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. U.S. officials say that since then they have seen anecdotal evidence and intelligence assessments that suggest that al-Nusra's gains within Syria have slowed, both because of the group's public links to Al Qaeda and the U.S. designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. Other opposition members, they said, now appear to view al-Nusra more warily.
In public comments Tuesday, Dempsey said the U.S. could provide weapons that might make the rebels more "militarily effective."
But, he warned, it's not clear "whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire, which is, you know, an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria."
However, a U.S. official said military planners believe that it would be possible to vet the rebel fighting forces and that those under Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss and the Supreme Military Council are seen as independent of al-Nusra.
The official said the military planners also believe that Idriss' forces would be prime candidates to receive arms, if and when Obama makes the decision to start providing lethal assistance.
Arming the rebels could take any number of paths. If ordered, the U.S. military could provide the weapons to rebel groups, or the Pentagon could use the State Department as an intermediary and transfer the weapons through those channels. Under a more covert scenario, the CIA could secretly provide the arms.
At the Pentagon on Wednesday, press secretary George Little said there are discussions underway on how to bolster humanitarian assistance and how to engage even more closely with the opposition forces.
"We're fully cognizant of the role that extremist groups in Syria are playing," Little said. "We understand the dynamics that that creates."
He said the U.S. has to also look beyond any move to bring an end to the Assad regime, and work with allies on what a post-Assad Syria would look like.
Dempsey, however, also noted that during these difficult fiscal times, the U.S. military could do whatever was needed or ordered in Syria, but would likely require supplemental funding in order to sustain any operations over time. He said the military options are ready, although he has not yet been ordered to take any action.
Obama has said all military options are on the table, but there has been little appetite for putting U.S. military boots on the ground in Syria.