White House plan sets stage for arming Syrian rebels

Under the plan, first reported by the Associated Press, U.S. government officials will begin vetting certain elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to evaluate whether they meet the criteria to receive military support. 

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The vetting process will likely be run by the Pentagon, State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, with various Gulf states providing the actual weapons to the FSA and others. 

Assad's troops have used tanks and heavy artillery to devastating effect against poorly equipped rebel forces armed with nothing more than assault rifles and various other small arms. 

Days before the administration's disclosure of the vetting plan, rumors had already begun to swirl on Capitol Hill that the White House was preparing to make a change on Syria. 

"I think they're moving toward some more real action," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) told The Hill last Tuesday regarding the administration's position on the escalating conflict. 

But despite the new White House plan, American officials were adamant that any U.S. support given to Syrian rebels would strictly be non-lethal. 

However, this new vetting process will ensure the weapons and materiel handed over by U.S. allies in the Mideast to the FSA will not find their way into al Qaeda arsenals or in the hands of other fundamentalist groups working in the region. 

The notion of American-supplied weapons being used by terror groups against U.S. allies or even American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan was a large reason why combat commanders campaigned against arming anti-Assad forces. 

Gen. James Mattis, head of Central Command, told the Senate in March that there is already evidence that al Qaeda operatives have infiltrated the rebel’s ranks and could have access to weapons supplied by the United States or its allies. 

But even if the United States can guarantee that none of the arms will reach al Qaeda or its terrorist affiliates, adding foreign-supplied weapons into Syria could be another step closer to a Libya-like international intervention. 

"We don't think that adding fuel to this fire is the right way to go," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told the AP on Friday. 

But the Obama administration has made a number of overtures toward possible action in Syria, particularly in light of the apparent failure of a U.N.-backed peace plan. 

Assad agreed in April to abide by a peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but his forces continued to bombard rebel strongholds in Homs and elsewhere.

White House press secretary Jay Carney in May called upon international advocates of the Annan peace plan to "admit defeat" and begin considering other options. 

In April, top U.S. and NATO military leaders explored possible political and military outcomes in Syria should Western powers decide to remove Assad by force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a May 5 speech in Washington. 

American military forces have also been participating in a month-long military exercise with several Middle Eastern countries in Jordan, just to the south of Syria.