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Obama Policy Shift on Arming Syrian Rebels Triggers Concerns

June 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The prospect of sending military help to the rebels in Syria sparked a range of reactions today from friend and foe alike. The policy shift also triggered a number of questions, including, what kinds of arms will be sent and how soon?

BEN RHODES, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser: I can’t give you a specific timeline or an itemized list of what that assistance is and when it will get there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes offered few details today, but he said the president’s decision means dramatically increasing military aid to the rebels.

Initial reports suggested the assistance could range from small arms and ammunition to anti-tank missiles. In Turkey, rebel leaders of the Free Syrian Army welcomed the announcement. But they also made clear they hope for more and larger weapons.

LOUAY MEQDAD, Political Coordinator, Free Syrian Army: We need all the weapons that they can offer for us. The international community, they should — they should use all their powers to help us, because we need help.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Thursday, in the U.S. Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain sounded a similar appeal.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: These people of the Free Syrian Army need weapons and heavy weapons to counter tanks and aircraft. They need a no-fly zone. And Bashar Assad’s air assets have to be taken out and neutralized.

JEFFREY BROWN: The rebels also called for a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria. But France and others said today that would require approval by the U.N. Security Council.

The U.S. decision to authorize military aid followed a finding outlined yesterday at the White House. In a late-day statement, deputy National Security Adviser Rhodes said: “The Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”

Today, the Syrian government charged the U.S. findings were — quote — “full of lies” and based on fabricated information. What’s more, Syrian state television claimed it had an intercepted phone call between rebels showing they are the ones using chemical weapons.

MAN: Everyone is now using masks. Our heroes want to attack the pigs with poison gas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Russia, the Syrian government’s main weapons supplier, also rejected the chemical weapons claim and the move to arm the rebels.

ALEXANDER LUKASHEVICH, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman: There is little doubt that the decisions made regarding additional supplies of weapons and military equipment to illegal armed groups will increase the level of confrontation and violence against innocent civilians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Moscow further warned the decision could undermine U.S. and Russian plans for a Syrian peace conference in Geneva.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said he, too, opposes putting more weapons in Syria.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON, United Nations: Providing arms to either side wouldn’t address this current situation. There is no such military solution. Only political solution can address this issue sustainably,

JEFFREY BROWN: Germany’s foreign minister raised another concern, that radical Islamist fighters in Syria will somehow get hold of American weapons.

GUIDO WESTERWELLE, German Foreign Minister: We need an end to the violence as soon as possible and the start of a political process. But whoever opts for weapons delivery must make sure that those weapons do not end up in the wrong hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Up to now, President Obama had raised the same concern, but at the White House today, adviser Rhodes said it’s been addressed.

BEN RHODES: We have relationships today in Syria that we didn’t have six months ago that gives us greater certainty, not just that we can get stuff into the country, but also that we can put it in the right hands, so that it’s not falling into the hands of extremists.

JEFFREY BROWN: The turn of events comes as the Syrian regime has captured one key town and is now stepping up attacks on rebels in Aleppo, plus pushing to regain control of the central provinces of Homs and Hama.

The Syrian crisis is expected to top the agenda when President Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Later in the program, we will have a debate on the American response to the Syrian civil war.