US not considering arming Syrian opposition

February 7, 2012 - 4:26 PM
Obama

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney gestures during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said on Tuesday that the U.S. is not considering arming opposition groups in Syria, deflecting calls from some lawmakers to explore such a possibility as one way to quell the violence in Syria.

However, U.S. officials said no option would be completely ruled out as the Obama administration grapples for a way to end the bloodshed and facilitate a political transition.

"We are not considering that step right now," White House spokesman Jay Carney said of the prospect of arming the rebels.

Carney said current deliberations inside the administration are focused on how the U.S. could provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, though he wouldn't say what form such assistance might take.

At the State Department, spokesman Victoria Nuland said that while the U.S. never takes any option off the table, "we don't think more arms into Syria is the answer."

Earlier Tuesday, some congressional lawmakers, including Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain, called for the U.S. to explore the prospect of arming opposition forces in Syria.

"We should start considering options, arming the opposition," McCain said. "The bloodletting has got to stop."

McCain was a staunch advocate last year for the U.S. to arm rebels in Libya in their fight against Moammar Gadhafi and forces loyal to his regime. The U.S. and NATO did ultimately provide military help under the cover of a U.N. mandate.

The U.S. and other Western powers have met repeatedly with members of Syria's emerging political opposition, but they are leery of engaging closely with would-be rebel forces without the legal protection of a similar U.N. resolution.

But in the wake of last weekend's defeat of a Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, western nations have little appetite for another run at the U.N. And there is even less interest in trying to find ways around the U.N. to help anti-Assad forces militarily.

While the double-veto by Russia and China at the Security Council Saturday put diplomatic efforts at an impasse, the U.S. says it is still loath to consider a military option.

President Barack Obama pushed back this week on questions about why the U.S. engaged militarily in Libya, but not in Syria.

"Not every situation is going to allow for the kind of military solution we saw with Libya," Obama said in an interview that aired Monday on NBC. "I think it is very possible for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite and rally against Assad's regime, previewing the possible formation of a group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition. Speaking in Bulgaria on Sunday, she said the world had a duty to halt the violence and see Assad out of power.

The contact group is likely to be similar, but not identical, to the one established for Libya, which oversaw the international help for Gadhafi's opponents. It also coordinated the NATO military operations.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Assad's regime began in March, according to a United Nations count from early last month. Hundreds more are believed to have been killed since then, but the U.N. says the chaos in the country has made it impossible to cross-check the figures.

Despite the continued violence, the White House insists that sanctions and diplomatic pressure are taking a toll on Assad's regime.

"Ultimately it needs to result in Assad ceasing the violence, stopping the brutality and allowing for a transition supported by the Syrian people," Carney said.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.