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, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed 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 Assad.
But Obama, who spoke by telephone with 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 Putin in June, officials said.
Confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, 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 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 a broad spectrum.
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.
American and allied military and contract personnel have been training Jordanian and rebel forces to deal with the chemical weapons threat.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday repeated his long-held reservations about a no-fly zone, emphasizing that it is more complicated and riskier than advocates believe. "I have to assume ... that a potential adversary is not just going to sit back" and allow its air defense systems to be destroyed, Dempsey said at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Damascus bomb kills at least 14
A powerful bomb ripped through a bustling commercial district of Damascus on Tuesday, killing at least 14 people, shattering storefronts and bringing Syria's civil war to the heart of the capital for the second consecutive day. A day earlier, the Syrian prime minister narrowly escaped an assassination attempt after a car bomb exploded near his convoy. Tuesday's bombing struck the Marjeh neighborhood, a bustling commercial area near the Old City of Damascus, Syrian TV said. The state news agency said 14 people were killed and 103 wounded in the attack. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.