Syrian opposition forces already had sufficient quantities of light weaponry from other outside sources and raids of government depots, the analysis determined. The question of providing shoulder-launched missiles to shoot down government aircraft, officials said, was never considered.
It remained unclear whether senior officials who backed the plan, first proposed during the summer by then-CIA director David H. Petraeus, were comfortable with President Obama’s decision not to move ahead with it. Some U.S. and outside experts have argued that the provision of weapons to selected rebel groups, even if they are superfluous, could help empower and build loyalty among pro-Western factions.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress Thursday they had backed the proposal to arm the rebels. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton was also said to be in favor of the plan.
Officials from several allied governments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about relations with Washington, said that they were convinced last summer that the administration was moving in a new direction, with the majority of top national security officials in favor of providing weapons. When a change in policy did not occur by September, many concluded that Obama wanted to wait until after he was re-elected.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal administration deliberations, said the subject has not been revisited since the decision was made and that there were no plans to reconsider it.
But the division exposed by Panetta and Dempsey was rare among the tight circle of Obama national security advisers. Some officials said the divisions were not particularly deep and that enthusiasm for the plan was tempered by the risks it posed. Administration officials have voiced increasing concern about infiltration of rebel ranks by Islamic extremists, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda.
In the case of the mobile surface-to-air missiles, called MANPADS, one official said, “We wouldn’t even consider it, because God forbid they would be used against an Israeli aircraft.”
Israel’s air attack last month against a weapons convoy en route from Syria to its Hezbollah allies in Syria was criticized by several regional governments opposed to the Syrian regime and by some rebel groups.
White House press secretary Jay Carney stressed the administration’s caution Friday. “We have had to be very careful,” he said. “We don't want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States. We also need to make sure that any support we are providing actually makes a difference in pressuring [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad.”