U.S. boosts "nonlethal" help to Syria rebels

A Syrian rebel runs for cover at the Sunni district of Jabb al-Jandali in Homs, Syria, May 14, 2012. AP

This article was written by Washington Post staff writers Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly

(Washington Post) Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.

Obama administration officials emphasized that the United States is neither supplying nor funding the lethal material, which includes antitank weaponry. Instead, they said, the administration has expanded contacts with opposition military forces to provide the gulf nations with assessments of rebel credibility and command-and-control infrastructure.

"We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing," said a senior State Department official, one of several U.S. and foreign government officials who discussed the evolving effort on the condition of anonymity.

The U.S. contacts with the rebel military and the information-sharing with gulf nations mark a shift in Obama administration policy as hopes dim for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Many officials now consider an expanding military confrontation to be inevitable.

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Material is being stockpiled in Damascus, in Idlib near the Turkish border and in Zabadani on the Lebanese border. Opposition activists who two months ago said the rebels were running out of ammunition said this week that the flow of weapons -- most still bought on the black market in neighboring countries or from elements of the Syrian military -- has significantly increased after a decision by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states to provide millions of dollars in funding each month.

Syria's Muslim Brotherhood also said it has opened its own supply channel to the rebels, using resources from wealthy private individuals and money from gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said Mulham al-Drobi, a member of the Brotherhood's executive committee.

The new supplies reversed months of setbacks for the rebels that forced them to withdraw from their stronghold in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs and many other areas in Idlib and elsewhere.

"Large shipments have got through," another opposition figure said. "Some areas are loaded with weapons."

The effect of the new arms appeared evident in Monday's clash between opposition and government forces over control of the rebel-held city of Rastan, near Homs. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel forces who overran a government base had killed 23 Syrian soldiers.

Administration officials also held talks in Washington this week with a delegation of Kurds from sparsely populated eastern Syria, where little violence has occurred. The talks included discussion of what one U.S. official said remained the "theoretical" possibility of opening a second front against Assad's forces that would compel him to move resources from the west.

Syria will also be on the agenda at this weekend's NATO summit in Chicago, according to administration officials.

Although the alliance has repeatedly said it will not become involved in Syria, Turkey has indicated that it may invoke Article IV of the NATO Charter, which would open the door to consultations on threats to Turkish security and consideration of mutual defense provisions of Article V of the charter.

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