With fighting in and around the Syrian capital of Demascus growing continuously more fierce, the Obama administration is considering an increased role for the U.S. to assist rebels trying to eject President Bashar al-Assad from power, according to The New York Times.
Assad’s regime went on the attack Thursday, cutting Internet and phone lines, as well as stepping up attacks on rebels in the country’s second-largest city and their strongholds along its outskirts.
The civil war has raged for almost 18 months as Assad has killed hundreds of his own citizens a day while the international community has involved itself covertly, if at all, in the conflict.
In recent weeks, however, rebels have shown an ability for greater results from their attacks, which has leaders in other countries considering whether to step up assistance.
The U.S. has stayed in the background, for the most part, providing about $200 million in humanitarian aid, although CIA officials are reportedly on the ground in Turkey.
Additionally, the CIA has been running an operation in Libya to quietly assist the rebels. Through intermediaries, they are moving weapons from Moamar Gadhafi's former regime and from extremists there, and reselling them to rebels in Syria, according to Business Insider.
Playing a more direct role in arming the Syrian rebels is a tricky proposition because U.S. officials want to be sure they know where arms are going and how they are being used.
“The problem right now is that we don’t have much visibility into where these weapons are going,” one senior administration official said. “That’s the problem with outsourcing the issue.”
Although no decisions have been made, NATO is considering sites in Turkey for surface-to-air missiles to protect any sudden attacks by Assad on that nation, and the administration is weighing options that range from directly arming rebel forces to inserting CIA or allied intelligence officers on the ground.
Recent success by rebels in taking military installations from the government have emboldened actions, including Wednesday morning’s rebel attack on the Demascus airport - which resulted not only in the airport being shut down, but the communications lines as well.
“Deliberately or not, the rebels could be forcing the regime’s hand “ said Yezid Sayigh, a military analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
In addition to attacks on the airport, where rebels have displayed an ability to take down planes, they have in recent weeks taken oil fields and a major air base near Aleppa, the country’s largest city.
Anti-government activists suggested that the disappearance of communications could indicate Syrian authorities planning a larger response to the growing uprising. An unnamed security source told Reuters on Thursday that the army had already launched a “cleansing operation” in Demascus.
The Obama administration may be trying to hold any large shifts in policy until its new national security team is in place, but there also are concerns that the U.S. will lose the opportunity to steer rebels and exert influence over lands taken by rebels if they wait too long.
As rebels gain ground around the country - they have already taken many areas in the north and east of the country - European Union officials think Assad may be preparing to fight for Demascus with a crackdown and series of checkpoints to gain greater control of the capital.
That said, the progress has been slow, and is expected to continue that way, regardless of the continuing bloodshed.
"The rebels are gaining ground but it is still rather slow. We are not witnessing the last days yet," the EU official said on condition of anonymity.
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