WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- U.S. officials are considering greater help for Syrian rebels that could help remove President Bashar Assad from power, officials involved in discussions said.
Stressing that no decisions have been made, the officials said the Obama administration is mulling several alternatives, including providing arms directly to some opposition fighters, because recent events in Syria could indicate the civil war has reached a turning point, The New York Times reported.
Next week, NATO ministers will decide whether to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Turkey to protect the country from Syrian missiles that could carry chemical weapons. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that the Patriot missile system wouldn't be used "beyond the Turkish border."
Other options include directly providing arms to opposition fighters instead of using other countries, such as Qatar, to do so, the Times said.
The newspaper said a riskier direction would be to place intelligence agents on the ground in Syria to work with opposition fighters in areas they largely control.
The sources said administration officials discussed all of these steps before the Nov. 6 election. Now that President Obama has won a second term, the White House is more willing to take risks, officials said. The recent tactical victories by rebel forces, including the seizure of several government military installations, "has given this debate a new urgency, and a new focus," an administration official said.
Until now, the United States has provided limited support to the rebels' military efforts, providing instead about $200 million in humanitarian and other non-lethal aid. Also, a few CIA operatives have been working secretly in southern Turkey for several months helping allies determine which opposition fighters would receive weapons, U.S. officials and Arab intelligence officers said.
Government officials and independent analysts told the Times the administration was reviewing its policy on Syria partly to gain credibility and influence with opposition fighters.
"The administration has figured out that if they don't start doing something, the war will be over and they won't have any influence over the combat forces on the ground," said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and specialist on the Syria military. "They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won't have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory."