But Obama, who spoke by telephone with Putin on Monday and is sending Secretary of State John F. Kerry to Moscow in the coming days, is likely to make a final decision on the supply of arms to the opposition within weeks, before a scheduled meeting with Putin in June, the officials said.
Confirmation that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, Obama said Tuesday, would mean that “there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would strongly consider.”
At a news conference, he emphasized the need to “make sure I’ve got the facts. . . . If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support” additional action. Administration officials have made repeated reference to the George W. Bush administration’s inaccurate claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Yet even as Obama voiced caution in responding to what he has called the “red line” on chemical weapons, the senior officials described him as ready to move on what one described as the “left-hand side” of a broad spectrum that ranged from “arming the opposition to boots on the ground.”
“We’re clearly on an upward trajectory,” the senior official said. “We’ve moved over to assistance that has a direct military purpose.”
The officials did not specify what U.S. equipment is under consideration, although the rebels have specifically requested antitank weapons and surface-to-air missiles.
Syria’s neighbors and, according to recent polls, the American public oppose the insertion of U.S. troops in a conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 70,000 people. Such a move remains highly unlikely barring a spillover of the conflict into major regional instability, significant use of chemical weapons or indications that those weapons are falling into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants fighting alongside Syrian opposition forces.
U.S. and allied military and contract personnel have been training Jordanian and rebel forces to deal with the chemical weapons threat. U.S. intelligence also has tried to contact Syrian government units charged with protecting the weapons to warn against their use, and U.N. experts are preparing to secure chemical sites in the event of a negotiated cease-fire.