Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad may be getting some added help from the United States.
The New York Times reports CIA operatives are working along the Turkish-Syrian border, helping to funnel arms -- including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons -- to opposition groups seen as most friendly to the U.S. The report cites American officials and Arab intelligence officers, who say the arms themselves are coming from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to comment directly on the report Thursday but told reporters Washington does not provide "lethal aid" to the Syrian opposition.
"What I can tell you is that we provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people," he said. "We provide non-lethal assistance to the opposition and we continue to work with the opposition, in concert with our international partners, to help them organize themselves, to help them develop greater capacities all as part of the process of preparing for a political transition that the Syrian people absolutely desire and deserve and that will take place."
Senior U.S. officials have already said operatives have been helping the Syrian rebels with logistics and other planning, and The Wall Street Journal has reported U.S. intelligence officials have been debating whether to give the rebels access to satellite imagery and other information that could help give them a tactical advantage over President Assad's forces.
Experts say whether the allegations are true -- and the reason the story was leaked -- remains unclear. But Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said it would be surprising if the U.S. was not trying to find ways to make the Syrian rebels more effective.
"These types of weapons, particularly anti-tank weapons -- and I am sure there are other sorts of devices, along the lines of the manufacture and production of IEDs -- does represent, if it's done in a volume, an effort to give the insurgency a real capacity to endure," he said. "And I think, over time, that's the plan, because there are no short-term solutions here."
Miller said such a strategy comes with risks and that the longer the conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become to "reassemble Syria" as a unified political entity.
"Can the provision of these weapons, even if it's done in a very organized, focused way to the right units, really make them more competitive?" he said, explaining that there is no guarantee such a strategy would work. "Perhaps over time, but you're dealing with a regime that clearly has superior firepower."
Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, said the influx of arms to the rebels is having an impact.
"The improving capabilities they have is tilting the battlefield," he said, adding that, for now, that may be enough.
"Whether or not they ever get to the point where they can defeat the Syrian army in sort of a conventional or main battle, I think that's a ways off, if ever," he said. "But they can cause a lot of attrition and they can cause a lot of stress on Syrian army units and they can cause some to break, maybe."
Russia Helicopter Shipments
In Moscow Thursday, the foreign ministry confirmed it is trying to send military helicopters to Syria, saying the helicopters already belong to Syria and had been sent to Russia for repairs.
The Mi-25 helicopters, said spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, posed no threat to civilians.
"Our main position on military-technical cooperation with Syria is already well known and has often been stated publicly," he said. "We maintain our military-technical links with Syria, while refusing to ship there any equipment which could be used against peaceful demonstrators.''
White, of The Washington Institute, disagreed and said evidence from the ground shows how the helicopters are used.
"They're employing combat helicopters quite a bit now. We see them in regular use all over the country," he said. "And bringing in additional [combat helicopters] to the ones that are already there will make their force more effective."
Russia's critics also point to video coming out of Syria on a daily basis, showing the Syrian military using its equipment to shell cities like Homs and Qusair.