Sources: U.S. To Send Small Arms, Ammo To Syrian Rebels
By Jessica Yellin. Saad Abedine and Barbara Starr
(CNN) -- The United States plans to send Syrian rebels small arms, ammunition and potentially anti-tank weapons, two officials familiar with the matter told CNN on Friday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said the weapons will be provided by the CIA.
President Barack Obama's administration has declined to provide details about increased military assistance it said Thursday that it plans to give Syria's rebels, who are losing ground in their fight against Bashar al-Assad's government.
Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security adviser, told reporters that Washington would "increase the size and scope of the assistance."
When asked for more details, Rhodes said: "I can't give you a specific timeline or itemized list of what that assistance is."
Meanwhile, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled as "unconvincing" the evidence of chemical weapons use by government forces that U.S. officials cited in announcing Thursday that the al-Assad regime crossed President Barack Obama's "red line" for greater American involvement.
The U.S. announcement set off a series of claims and counterclaims in Syria and world capitals over the conflict that has claimed more than 90,000 lives with no sign of progress toward a political solution sought by Obama and allied leaders.
Britain backed the U.S. change in position, but Syria and its allies in Moscow quickly sought to cast its integrity into doubt.
The Syrian foreign ministry accused Washington of releasing "a statement full of lies regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria," according to a statement on state TV.
And a government statement reported by state news agency SANA accused the United States of using "flagrant tricks to come up with any possible means to justify the decision of President Barack Obama to arm the Syrian opposition."
Washington is "clearly exercising scandalous double standards in dealing with terrorism," the statement said. The Syrian government under al-Assad habitually refers to the rebels as terrorists.
Obama has been criticized at home and abroad for not acting sooner to assist the Syrian opposition, and the declaration that the red line of chemical weapons use had been crossed raised expectations of U.S. arms heading to the rebels.
Louay Almokdad, the political and media coordinator of the rebel Free Syrian Army, told CNN on Friday that he expected the United States to initially send ammunition, rather than heavy arms.
The rebels promised U.S. and European officials that any military weaponry they get won' t end up with extremists among the anti-government forces, he said.
At the same time, Almokdad said the rebels need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as well as establishment of a "no-fly" zone to prevent government forces from retaking what he called "liberated" areas. Otherwise, he warned, the result could be the slaughter of residents who backed the rebels.
Sources indicated that beyond small arms and ammunition, anti-tank weapons were also under consideration. Anti-aircraft weapons were considered less likely, and Rhodes made clear Friday that Obama ruled out sending any U.S. troops to Syria.
"The one option that we've basically taken off the table is boots on the ground," Rhodes said, adding that Obama has made the final decision on the step that "dramatically increases assistance to" rebel forces.
Asked about Russia's questioning of the U.S. assertion that al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons multiple times, killing at least 100 people, Rhodes said the information provided to Putin's government included samples of sarin gas and other "convincing" evidence.
"We have a broad range of evidence associated with the multiple incidents of chemical weapons use that we assess took place," he said. "That includes open-source reporting. It includes intelligence reporting. It includes the accounts of individuals. It also includes physiological samples of sarin that we've obtained from within Syria. So we assess with a high confidence that sarin has been used. And, frankly, the regime maintains custody of these weapons."
Rhodes noted that Obama and Putin would hold a bilateral meeting on Monday while both attend the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, and said he expected Syria to be a main topic of discussion.
A senior administration official said no single piece of intelligence led to the conclusion that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons.
Instead, the official said, the finding was a result of looking at a number of instances of suspected use, seeing similar evidence and patterns of usage and coming to the conclusion chemical weapons had been used.
Also Friday, the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry posted a statement that said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with Secretary of State John Kerry about the increased American aid to the rebels.
Lavrov "emphasised that this step would lead to an escalation in the region, since the U.S. accusations that Damascus has used chemical weapons are not rooted in reliable facts," the statement said.
A boost in support by the United States for the rebels could put at risk the gains made by Syrian forces in recent days, especially in central and northern Syria, with the help of Hezbollah fighters from Iran.
In Damascus, an al-Assad loyalist who spoke to CNN's Frederik Pleitgen said he believes the United States is "inventing stories" about the government's use of chemical weapons "because our army is winning."
Sen. John McCain, who has repeatedly pushed the Obama administration to step up its support for the rebels, told CNN on Friday that they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Asked if the rebels were losing the fight, the Arizona Republican said: "Absolutely, there's no doubt about it."
He also called for taking out al-Assad's air assets to create a safe zone for the Syrian opposition.
"I know that we have the military capability to impose a 'no-fly' zone, to crater their runways and their fixed installations where fuel and parts are, and establish a 'no-fly' zone with Patriot missiles," McCain said.
"And if we can't do that, then the question ought to be asked to the American taxpayer -- to the Pentagon, 'What in the world are we wasting tens of billions of dollars for defense for if we can't even take care of this situation?'" McCain said.
Russia: Evidence is unconvincing
Rhodes, however, indicated that a "no-fly" zone was unlikely, saying it would be "dramatically more difficult and dangerous and costly" to enforce one in Syria compared to the one NATO forces imposed with U.S. backing during Libya's civil war.
Libyan rebels had control of large portions of the country, unlike the Syrian rebels, he noted, and the Libyan military had fewer air-defense systems. He added that a "no-fly" zone "is not a silver bullet."
U.S. defense officials are not reviewing any new or updated options for a no-fly zone, according to two Pentagon sources. A senior Pentagon official said that even if U.S. planes monitored a no-fly zone along the Syrian-Jordanian border, the Syrian regime could attack targets in southern Syria using long range artillery or Scud missiles.
Asked about chemical weapons, Rhodes said U.S. officials have been closely monitoring Syria's stockpiles and are certain they remain in the control of al-Assad's regime. He said it would be too dangerous to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles from afar.
In Moscow, Russia's state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters the United States had shown Russian officials data and information on Syria's use of chemical weapons.
"What we saw does not look convincing to us," Ushakov was quoted as saying.
A senior Russian lawmaker also dismissed the U.S. report as a fabrication.
"Information about the usage of chemical weapons by Assad is fabricated in the same way as the lie about (Saddam) Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq)," Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian lower house of parliament's international affairs committee, said on Twitter, according to RIA Novosti.
Obama "is going the same way" as former President George W. Bush did then, Pushkov said, alluding to the claims made against Iraq that preceded the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague backed the U.S. government's assessment and called for a coordinated response from the international community.
Britain will join the United States, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan at the G-8 talks that begin Monday.
Syria has long maintained that rebels, not government forces, are behind the use of chemical weapons. It also went to the United Nations with its claims, but al-Assad would not allow U.N. inspectors into the country to try to verify the claims.
Earlier Friday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the international community had made clear that any use of chemical weapons is "completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law."
Speaking in Brussels, he said he welcomed "the clear U.S. statement" on Syria's alleged chemical weapons use.
"It is urgent that the Syrian regime should grant access to the United Nations to investigate all reports of chemical weapons use," he said.
"As for NATO, the Patriot deployment will ensure effective protection for Turkey against any missile attack, whether the missiles carry chemical weapons or not," he said.
NATO and the United States have announced plans to send Patriot surface-to-air interceptor missiles to the area after a request from Turkey and for exercises in Jordan.
Rasmussen said that he still believed "the right way forward is a political solution" and that he embraced the joint U.S.-Russian initiative for an international conference on Syria.
The United Nations said Thursday there have been more than 92,000 documented deaths in Syria since March 2011, when a brutal government crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests devolved into an armed conflict.
The White House announcement came at a critical time for the Syrian opposition, which has suffered a series of significant losses in recent weeks that coincided in large part with the arrival of thousands of Hezbollah Shiite fighters, backed by Lebanon and Iran, to reinforce al-Assad's forces battling the mainly Sunni uprising.
After months of gaining ground, the rebels this month lost Qusayr -- one of its strongholds near the Lebanese border -- which was considered essential for its supply route.
Until now, the United States has limited its aid to rebels, providing communications equipment, medical supplies and food. Obama signed off on a new package of non-lethal aid April. That assistance was expected to include body armor, night-vision goggles and other military equipment.
What complicates any U.S. military support for the opposition is that many of the rebel fighters are militants with pro-al Qaeda sympathies, the same stripe of militants America has battled in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They include the al-Nusra Front, a rebel group that the United States says has links to al Qaeda.
As recently as last week, France's foreign minister said sarin gas had been used several times in the Syrian civil war, citing results from test samples in France's possession.
In early May, the head of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that evidence points to the use of sarin by Syrian rebel forces. But the commission later issued a news release saying it "has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."
In April, the head of the Israeli military's intelligence research said the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against rebel forces.
Sarin gas can be hard to detect because it is colorless, odorless and tasteless. It can cause severe injuries -- including blurred vision, convulsions, paralysis and death -- to those exposed to it.
Analysts believe the Syrian government may have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Specifically, the supply is believed to include sarin, mustard and VX gases, which are banned under international law. Syria has denied the allegation.
In recent months, reports have repeatedly surfaced that Syrian forces have moved some of the chemical weapons inventories, possibly because of deteriorating security in the country, raising fears the stockpile could fall into the hands of al Qaeda-linked groups working with the opposition should al-Assad's government fall.
As a result, the United States has been talking with neighboring countries about the steps needed to secure the weapons should al-Assad be forced from office.