U.S. closer to arming rebels in Syria directly, officials say

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition and has taken steps to assert more aggressive U.S. leadership among allies and partners seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad, according to senior administration officials.

The officials emphasized that supplying arms is one of several options under consideration and that political negotiation remains the preferred option. To that end, the administration has launched an effort to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that the probable use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government -- and the more direct outside intervention that could provoke -- should lead him to reconsider his support of Mr. Assad.

But Mr. Obama, who spoke by telephone with Mr. Putin on Monday and is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow in the coming days, is likely to make a final decision on the supply of arms to the opposition within weeks, before a scheduled meeting with Mr. Putin in June, officials said.

Confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, Mr. Obama said Tuesday, would mean that "there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider."

At a news conference, he emphasized the need to "make sure I've got the facts. ... If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, we can find ourselves in a position where we can't mobilize the international community to support" additional action. Administration officials have made repeated reference to the George W. Bush administration's inaccurate claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Yet even as Mr. Obama voiced caution in responding to what he has called the "red line" on chemical weapons use, officials described him as ready to move on what one described as the "left-hand side" of a broad spectrum that ranged from "arming the opposition to boots on the ground."

"We're clearly on an upward trajectory," the senior official said. "We've moved over to assistance that has a direct military purpose."

Officials did not specify what U.S. equipment is under consideration, although the rebels have specifically requested antitank weapons and surface-to-air missiles.

Syria's neighbors and, according to recent polls, the American public oppose the insertion of U.S. troops in a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people. Such a move remains highly unlikely barring a spillover of the conflict into major regional instability, significant use of chemical weapons or indications that those weapons are falling into the hands of al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants fighting alongside Syrian opposition forces.

In Syria, a bomb tore through a traffic-clogged district of downtown Damascus, the capital, on Tuesday, killing at least 13 people and wounding scores, according to Syrian state television.

It was the second attack to strike at the heart of President Bashar Assad's power base in as many days, underscoring his vulnerabilities as he battles a disparate but increasingly well-supplied rebel movement. Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki narrowly escaped a car bombing that targeted his convoy Monday morning. At least nine people were reported killed in that blast.

The bombings, which appear to have killed mostly civilians, also highlighted the growing ambiguities of a conflict that is in its third year and is affecting the resources, political agendas and even military strategies of other regional and international actors.

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