U.S. confident weapons to Syrian rebels won't fall into wrong hands, but should they be?

(CBS News) On Thursday, the White House said that President Obama had decided to send weapons to the rebels fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashar Assad in Syria, but the White House did not say what kind of weapons. Now we have new details.

The military aid to opposition forces is intended to show Syria that Mr. Obama meant it when he said the use of chemical weapons was a "red line." It would also shore up the rebels who have suffered recent defeats.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the increase would be dramatic, but not to expect dramatic results.

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"This is not something that's going to be resolved with the turn of a switch," he told reporters Friday.

Previously approved shipments of food, medical supplies and military gear, including armored vehicles, would increase in size and frequency. And for the first time, the CIA would be responsive to rebel weapons requests for small arms ammunition and anti-tank weapons, but not anti-aircraft missiles. Rhodes seemed confident the CIA could keep the aid away from Islamic extremists in the opposition.

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

Testifying before Congress in April, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey did not share that confidence.

"It is actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago," he said then.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, who has reported extensively from inside Syria and has spoken with her contacts there following the Obama administration's decision, said it is "pretty much guaranteed" that some of the U.S.-supplied weapons will go astray, despite whatever safeguards the U.S. put in place.

"All sorts of methods have been discussed to keep track of [the weapons], right down to numbering the shells and distributing them to specific groups. But these groups fight with one another. [And] There's a thriving black market in arms. So it's going to be very hard - no, impossible - to keep track of them," Palmer said.

Palmer also noted that one of the factors behind the new sense of urgency to aid the rebels has been the significant gains made by Assad forces in recent weeks, which have been aided by the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah. Those gains are seen by the administration, in effect, as victories for Iran.

American troops along with F-16 fighters and air defense missiles are currently conducting a training exercise in Jordan. The fighters and missiles are expected to stay behind when the exercise ends. But officials said the U.S. does not intend to establish a no-fly zone over Syria.

Rhodes said another long-term military engagement in the Middle East is simply not in the national interest. But when it comes to Syria, neither he nor any other official can answer that famous question from the Iraq war: "Tell me how this ends."

CBS
  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.

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