Sen. Corker on Syria: U.S. will "be arming the rebels soon"


(CBS News) Secretary of State John Kerry is in Russia this week to push Russian leadership to take a tougher stance on Syria and Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said the U.S. will likely act soon to arm the Syrian opposition.

"I do think we'll be arming the opposition shortly," Corker said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning." "We're doing a lot more on the ground than really is known but we do have to change the equation. ... The moderate opposition groups we support are not as good at fighting, they're not as good at delivering humanitarian aid."

The U.S. has publicly pledged non-lethal humanitarian aid to the rebels and American efforts to improve the rebels' fighting capabilities have so far been limited to small-scale training camps in neighboring Jordan. A coalition of Mideast and Western powers including the U.S. reportedly took part in a covert operation to arm the rebels with heavy weaponry in March.

The White House has several options for escalation in Syria, including targeted air strikes and imposing no-fly zones however, according to Sen. Corker and administration officials, arming the rebels is an increasingly likely option.

"We need to change the balance. And [the rebels] need to be to reaching out to the Alawite population that supports Assad. ... If we can cause that to happen Russia will be far more open to some kind of political resolve where Assad is removed," Corker said.

Russia has long been a powerful Syrian ally and has voiced support for President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. officials say Secretary Kerry hopes to address two critical issues in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: America possibly arming the rebels and evidence of possible chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime.

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"We've got to change the balance there and I do think we'll be arming the rebels soon," Corker emphasized, adding that steps must also be taken to plan for an orderly transition of power should Assad be successfully ousted. The Syrian al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda linked Jihadist group that has claimed responsibility for attacks within Syria, could pose a threat in the case of a post-Assad power struggle in the country, Corker said.

A nightmare would be al-Nusra gaining control of Syria," he said, "We have the extremists ... we've known for a long time which of the groups are more moderate. ... I think it's time for us to begin changing the balance."