PENTAGON — Following the White House announcement that the United States will provide lethal aid to Syrian rebels, the Pentagon is recommending options on what weapons to provide and to whom.
They are options that Pentagon planners have been working on for almost as long as the conflict in Syria. With Assad's forces gaining ground and confirmation they have used chemical weapons, the U.S. government says it is now time to act.
The announcement came from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in a conference call to reporters saying the U.S. will increase support to the moderate Supreme Military Council.
"The president has taken the decision to provide that type of direct support to the SMC that has military purposes. And we're looking at a wide range of types of support we can provide both to the political opposition and to the SMC on the ground," said Rhodes.
The Pentagon is not discussing details of what new aid it is recommending. Reports say it could include small arms and ammunition.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made clear last month that the U.S. must tread carefully and not take any action that could make the conflict worse.
“To de-escalate, to find some common ground to assure that Syria doesn't disintegrate, and the Middle East erupt into a regional war, we continue to obviously keep every option open and what further action we may take,” said Hagel.
The U.S. has been consulting with regional partners such as Jordan, Turkey, and Israel, all of which fear further destabilization if weapons end up with extremist groups like Hezbollah or al-Qaida.
Analyst Chris Doyle in London thinks arming the rebels is risky.
"It's likely to induce an arms race, an arms race where Russia and Iran supply ever more weapons, Hezbollah gets ever more active. But also, those parties within the region who are supporting various elements of the Syrian opposition may also escalate the arming of their particular groups, their proxies, to ensure that they are not cut out of any final political solution within Syria," said Doyle.
U.S. officials indicate a no-fly zone is not a preferred option. Syria's air defenses are strong, and enforcing such a measure would require a large and costly commitment - including the possibility of sending troops - something the White House reportedly has ruled out.
The aid is likely to fall short of the anti-tank weapons, airstrikes, and other more aggressive responses that Syrian rebels and some within the U.S. government have been urging.
For U.S. leaders, the concern is that even sending small amounts of weaponry could mean a long-term involvement in yet another Middle East conflict.