WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar Assad from power, according to government officials involved in the discussions.
While no decisions have been made, the administration is considering several alternatives, including directly providing arms to some opposition fighters.
The most urgent decision, likely to come next week, is whether NATO should deploy surface-to-air missiles in Turkey, ostensibly to protect that country from Syrian missiles that could carry chemical weapons. The State Department spokesman, Victoria Nuland, said Wednesday that the Patriot missile system would not be "for use beyond the Turkish border."
But some strategists and administration officials believe that Syrian air force pilots might fear how else the two missile batteries could be used. If so, they could be intimidated from bombing the northern Syrian border towns where the rebels control considerable territory. A NATO survey team is in Turkey, examining possible sites for the batteries.
Other, more distant options include directly providing arms to opposition fighters rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so. A riskier course would be to insert CIA officers or allied intelligence services on the ground in Syria, to work more closely with opposition fighters in areas that they now largely control.
Administration officials discussed all of these steps before the presidential election. But the combination of President Barack Obama's re-election, which has made the White House more willing to take risks, and a series of recent tactical successes by rebel forces, one senior administration official said, "has given this debate a new urgency, and a new focus."
In the case of Syria, some officials continue to worry that the risks of intervention -- both in American lives and in setting off a broader conflict, potentially involving Turkey -- are too great to justify action. Others argue that more aggressive steps are justified in Syria by the loss in life there, the risks that its chemical weapons could get loose, and the opportunity to deal a blow to Iran's only ally in the region. The debate now coursing through the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA resembles a similar one among U.S. allies.
France and Britain have recognized a newly formed coalition of opposition groups, which the United States helped piece together. So far, Washington has not done so.
Until now, the United States has offered only limited support to the military campaign against the Syrian government, instead providing nearly $200 million in humanitarian and other nonlethal aid. In addition, a small number of CIA officers have operated secretly in southern Turkey for several months, according to U.S. officials and Arab intelligence officers, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border would receive shipments of weapons.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some anti-tank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries overseen mainly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, U.S. officials said. Even that limited effort is being revamped in the wake of evidence that most of the arms sent to Syrian opposition fighters are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, not the more secular opposition groups supported by the West.
U.S. officials say the administration is now weighing whether the United States should play a more direct role in supplying the opposition fighters with weapons to help ensure that the arms reach the intended groups.
Syrian rebels have acquired as many as 40 shoulder-fired missile systems in recent weeks to counter assaults by Syrian military aircraft, introducing a possibly decisive new weapon into the conflict, Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials say.
The potential impact of the missiles on the 20-month-old civil war was demonstrated Tuesday with the dramatic downing of a Syrian helicopter, blasted from the sky near Aleppo by what military experts say was almost certainly a portable anti-aircraft missile.
The Obama administration has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.
But intelligence officials who closely track the flow of arms into Syria say rebels have acquired dozens of the devices in recent weeks and are using them with increasing effectiveness against Syrian helicopters and military jets.
At least some of the missiles were supplied by Qatar, which has supplied most of the weapons smuggled to Syria's rebels across the Turkish border, according to two Middle Eastern intelligence officials briefed on the matter. The officials, along with others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
Together with other anti-aircraft weapons seized from Syrian army depots, the MANPADS -- the common name for man-portable air defense systems -- provide the rebels with a powerful defense against the airstrikes that are seen as critical to the regime's defense.
While the missiles are seen as a potential game-changer in the fight against Mr. Assad, their arrival has evoked fear and dismay among Syria's neighbors as well as Western countries, including the United States. In the hands of terrorists, the easily concealed missiles could be used to blow up commercial jets, weapons experts and intelligence officials say.world
The Washington Post contributed.