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White House plan to arm Syrian rebels raises fears of terrorist links

As the White House appeared poised to send military aid to Syrian rebels, new concerns arose that the weapons will inevitably fall into the hands of terrorist groups who count themselves among hundreds of factions that form the rag-tag Free Syrian Army.

President Obama, seeking to stem a bloody civil war that has now claimed more than 92,000 lives, has authorized food and medicine for the rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad, but had stopped short of military aid. But with U.S. officials confirming Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians - crossing Obama's "red line" - the White House strongly indicated that weapons are on the way.

"The president has made the decision to authorize additional assistance, but we're not going into specifics," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told FoxNews.com Friday. "The president has been very clear that all options are on the table, with the exception of U.S. troops on the ground. That is not a possibility."

Initial military aid is expected to consist of small arms and ammunition. That could include a range of weapons, including small arms, assault rifles, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles which the opposition forces could operate without significant training. But the rebel Free Syrian Army, which now gets light arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said on Friday more light weaponry from the U.S. would be largely “meaningless.” The Syrian Opposition Coalition called for “strategic and decisive” support.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. could try to establish a "no-fly zone" inside Syria to protect civilians fleeing the fighting and rebels who might train there. The White House did not say if this is an option currently under consideration.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who recently met with Syrian rebel leaders, said he was told Thursday that Obama had decided to "provide arms to the rebels," a decision confirmed by three U.S. officials, according to The Associated Press. But McCain said on the Senate floor Thursday that the rebels desperately need more powerful armaments.

"These people of the Free Syrian Army need weapons and heavy weapons to counter tanks and aircraft, they need a no-fly zone," McCain said. "Just providing arms is not enough"

But keeping the weapons away from the most militant factions of the Free Syrian Army could prove impossible, according to critics. They say light weapons piped into the rebels have already fallen into the wrong hands.

"Already some of those weapons… have been shown in radical militants’ hands," Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told the Financial Post earlier this year. "And even though the weapons are significantly better than they were before, they are still not the sophisticated kind the opposition would like.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a recent Op-Ed in the Albuquerque Journal that the U.S. risks repeating past mistakes, noting that weapons given to the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s to help them repel the Soviets fell into the hands of the Taliban, which in turn harbored Al Qaeda.

In a statement sent to FoxNews.com Friday, Udall reiterated his concerns, saying, "I am very skeptical that arming rebels we know little about, and intervening in a Middle East civil war, will serve U.S. interests."

"Arming groups whose members likely have links to Al Qaeda and other radical groups, and may not have the ability to secure their weapons, is not only unwise but could increase the amount of weapons in the region and exacerbate the terrorist threat to the U.S. and our allies," Udall said. 

In recent weeks, reports have emerged of rebels committing atrocities, including the recent killing of a boy accused of insulting Islam, mass executions and a shocking Internet video that showed a rebel leader biting into the heart of a fallen Assad loyalist.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told FoxNews.com the U.S. can support the more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army without putting weapons into the hands of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda linked Iraqi group that has become a powerful force within the rebel army.

"The more radical elements have gained strength because we have not supported the moderate elements," Rogers said. "Our inaction to support those in Syria that share our same goals has had the impact of emboldening and strengthening the more radical element who are supported by some actors in the region. 

"[McCain] is confident that we can get these to properly vetted opposition groups," Rogers said. 

The U.S. change in posture regarding the two-year-old civil war came after a determination that 100 to 150 people have died from chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date, said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for the White House.

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year," Rhodes said in a statement released by the White House press office.

The statement reiterated Obama’s repeated statements that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, saying that “the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., also warned that action was required in order to give meaning to the White House’s words, saying: “The President has stated that a red line has been crossed.  But I would observe that red lines are meaningless unless they are backed by action.”

Obama still opposes putting American troops on the ground in Syria and the U.S. has made no decision on operating a no-fly zone over Syria, Rhodes said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., issued a statement saying: “I am pleased that President Obama’s Administration has joined the growing international chorus declaring that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in Syria, crossing the red line drawn by the President last August. Assad must not be allowed to continue to commit these atrocities.” 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also offered cautious support for the White House.

"My colleagues and I stand ready to work with the President. I call on President Obama to explain to the Congress and the American people his plan to bring this conflict to an end in a manner that protects the interests of the United States and our allies."

Congress was notified of the chemical weapons finding Thursday in classified documents sent to Capitol Hill, White House officials said. Obama will discuss the assessments, along with broader problems in Syria, next week during the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser said Friday Moscow is not convinced Syria has used chemical weapons, saying the information provided by U.S. officials to Russia "didn't look convincing."

The Obama administration announced in April that it had "varying degrees of confidence" that sarin had been used in Syria. But it said at the time that it had not been able to determine who was responsible for deploying the gas.

The more conclusive findings announced Thursday were aided by evidence sent to the United States by France, which along with Britain, announced it had determined that Assad's government had used chemical weapons in the two-year conflict.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said his country was "not surprised by the determination made by the U.S. government," given its own assessments, and was in consultation with the Americans about next steps.

The U.S. has so far provided the Syrian rebel army with rations and medical supplies. In April, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the administration had agreed in principle to expand its military support to the opposition to include defensive items like night vision goggles, body armor and armored vehicles.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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