WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday defended its decision not to endorse a CIA plan to arm the Syrian rebels, saying it was worried that U.S. weapons could “fall into the wrong hands” and worsen the situation in the civil war-torn country.
In his remarks, press secretary Jay Carney specifically mentioned danger to “our ally Israel” as one of the reasons President Barack Obama rejected providing lethal aid to rebels fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States,” Carney said. “We also need to make sure that any support we are providing makes a difference in pressuring Assad.”
Carney’s explanation came a day after two top Defense Department officials told a Senate hearing that they had supported sending arms to the Syrian rebels under a plan that also had the backing of Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, then director of the CIA. The plan was rejected by the White House, however.
Carney declined to discuss “internal deliberations about policy decisions of that nature.” The specifics of the Pentagon-backed plan and when it was first brought to the president’s attention were not made public.
Critics have assailed the administration for not sending arms to the rebel fighters, but Carney noted there is “no shortage of weapons in the country.” He added, “That’s why we’ve focused our efforts on helping the opposition to become stronger, more cohesive and more organized.”
The conflict in Syria has raged for nearly two years, with an estimated 60,000 deaths, tens of thousands of injured and millions forced from their homes. The administration, which has called for Assad to step down, has rejected imposing a no-fly zone and providing lethal assistance to the rebels, but has provided humanitarian and “non-lethal” assistance.
Carney didn’t rule out arming the rebels at some point, saying the administration “almost constantly” reviews its Syria stance “and that conversation continues.”
The White House for months has expressed uncertainty about how deeply al-Qaida and other anti-Western Islamist elements have infiltrated the Syrian opposition. Reporting by McClatchy Newspapers has revealed that much of the fighting done by the Syrian resistance has involved fighters with ties to the Nusra Front, a rebel force that the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq.
Israel also has expressed concern that Syria’s chemical weapons stores and its sophisticated weapons, especially anti-aircraft missiles, might fall into the hands of either Sunni Muslim radicals affiliated with al-Qaida or Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim political group that has vowed Israel’s destruction.
On Jan. 30, Israeli aircraft bombed a convoy carrying anti-aircraft missiles on a Syrian military base five miles from the border with Lebanon. Israeli officials told McClatchy Newspapers the strike was intended to prevent the missiles from reaching Lebanon.
The admission that the White House overrode the Cabinet recommendation came during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday into the September attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Benghazi, Libya.
During the hearing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked soon-to-be-retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether they had backed the Clinton-Petraeus plan to arm the rebels. The two men responded that they had supported the plan.
John Brennan, Obama’s choice for CIA director and currently his chief counterterrorism adviser, told a Washington forum in August that direct U.S. involvement in Syria “might increase the bloodshed,” but he added that Obama had instructed counterterrorism officials to examine scenarios that would give the rebels the upper hand against Assad’s mostly intact military.
“I don’t recall the president ever saying anything was off the table,” Brennan said when pressed about the possibility of the U.S. sending arms to the rebels.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry, at his first news conference since he succeeded Clinton, said Friday that he wasn’t familiar with the weapons proposal and declined to say whether he would have supported it.
“I don’t know what the discussions were in the White House and who said what, and I’m not going to go backward,” Kerry said. “This is a new administration now, the president’s second term, I’m a new secretary of state, and we’re going forward from this point.”
But Kerry acknowledged “serious questions about al-Nusra and AQI, al-Qaida from Iraq, coming in and other violent groups on the ground.”
He called it a “very complicated and very dangerous situation, and everybody understands it is a place that has chemical weapons and we are deeply concerned about that.”
Kerry said the U.S. is evaluating whether there are additional steps that could be taken to reduce the violence.
“My sense right now is that everybody in the administration and people in other parts of the world are deeply distressed by the continued violence in Syria,” Kerry said. “There’s too much killing, there’s too much violence and we, obviously, want to try to find a way forward.”