Obama aides divided on arming Syrian rebels

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WASHINGTON -- Despite growing alarm over the Syrian government's military advances, Obama administration officials are split over whether to arm rebel forces or make other military moves that would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict.

President Barack Obama's top national security advisers met Wednesday at the White House to air their differences. The administration's caution persists despite its nearly 2-year-old demand that President Bashar Assad step down, its vows to help the besieged Syrian rebels on the ground and its threats to respond to any chemical weapons use.

U.S. officials had hoped this week to reach a decision on arming the rebels to halt the violence and motivate the government and the opposition to hold peace talks. But they are still uncertain whether that is the best way to reshape a war that now includes Hezbollah and Iranian fighters backing Mr. Assad's armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists backing the rebellion.

"Nobody wins in Syria the way things are going," Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday after meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "The people lose, and Syria as a country loses. And what we have been pushing for -- all of us involved in this effort -- is a political solution that ends the violence, saves Syria, stops the killing and destruction of the entire nation."

Despite increased support in Congress and the administration for lethal aid, officials said those closest to the president are divided over whether to begin providing Syria's armed opposition with arms or consider more drastic steps, such as using U.S. airpower to ground Mr. Assad's gunships and jets. The officials spoke ahead of Wednesday's White House meeting on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the private talks. Mr. Kerry, too, said he wouldn't predict the discussions' outcome.

Mr. Obama's moves throughout the 27-month civil war -- from political support for the opposition to nonlethal aid for its more moderate fighters -- have occurred in close concert with U.S. partners in Europe. All agree at this point that those efforts haven't done enough. After meeting Mr. Kerry at the State Department, Mr. Hague also stressed the need for a political solution to end the fighting that has now killed some 80,000 people, without outlining how the British government might contribute.

Mr. Kerry, who postponed a trip this week to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in the White House talks, is believed to be among the most forward-leaning members of Mr. Obama's national security leadership. Since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in February, he has spoken regularly about the need to change Mr. Assad's calculation that he can win the war militarily, if only to get him into serious discussions with the opposition about establishing a transitional government.

Mr. Assad's stunning military success last week at Qusair, near the Lebanese border as well as preparations for offensives against Homs and Aleppo have made the matter more urgent.

Mr. Obama was flying Wednesday from Massachusetts to Florida and did not participate in the White House meeting. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and other top presidential aides were to attend.

Officials said some at the White House, the Pentagon and in the intelligence community remained hesitant about providing weapons, ammunition or other lethal support to a rebellion increasingly defined by extremists who, along with Mr. Assad, have turned a political insurrection into a sectarian war. Instead, they have focused on nonlethal support, such as the Treasury Department decision Wednesday to ease restrictions on Syrian telecommunications, agricultural and petroleum transactions that benefit the opposition.

Even if nothing is decided this week, officials said the United States, Britain and France, who together spearheaded the 2011 international intervention that helped overthrow Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, were trying to coordinate a common approach before Mr. Obama meets next week's G-8 gathering of world leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria's most potent military and political backer, also will attend the Northern Ireland summit.

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