US officials start talks on arming Syria`s rebels
Washington: The Obama administration began discussing on Monday whether the Assad regime`s rapid military advance across the heart of Syria necessitates a drastic US response, with officials saying a decision on arming beleaguered rebels could happen later this week.
Top aides from the State and Defence Departments, the CIA and other agencies were gathering for a "deputies meeting" at the White House. They seek to lay the groundwork for a meeting that President Barack Obama will hold with his senior National Security staff, planned for Wednesday, said US officials, who weren`t authorised to speak publicly on the closed-doors talks and demanded anonymity.
Moved by the Assad regime`s rapid advance, officials say the administration could approve lethal aid for the rebels in the coming days. The President and his Advisers also will weigh the merits of a less likely move to send in US Airpower to enforce a no-fly zone over the nation wracked by civil war, officials said.
The White House meetings are taking place as Syrian President Bashar Assad`s government forces are apparently poised for an attack on the key city of Homs, which could cut off Syria`s armed opposition from the south of the country.
As many as 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are now in Syria, officials believe, helping the regime press on with its campaign after capturing the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week.
Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face devastating and irreversible losses without greater support.
Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip on Monday to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in White House discussions, officials said. He may travel to the region later in the week.
While nothing has been concretely decided, US officials said Obama was leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units. The US has spoken of possibly arming the opposition in recent months but has hesitated because it doesn`t want al-Qaeda-linked militants and other extremists fighting alongside the anti-Assad militias to end up with the weapons.
Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require US military boots on the ground. Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime`s jets, gunships and other aerial assets are being more seriously debated, officials said, but they cautioned that a no-fly zone or any other action involving US military deployments in Syria were far less likely right now.
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