- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2013

The Obama administration has made no effort to dispute reports that the U.S. is providing secret military training to Syria’s opposition rebels and continues to favor vague rhetoric over specifics about its policy regarding the Middle Eastern nation — particularly on the question of whether to arm rebels.

White House spokesman Jay Carney offered a flummoxing answer Friday when a reporter asked how involved U.S. officials have become in training rebels who are fighting military forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We have always been clear that our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition includes equipment and training to build a capacity of civilian activists, and to link Syrian citizens with the Syrian Opposition Coalition and local coordinating councils,” Mr. Carney said.Pressed for a clarification “in English,” Mr. Carney responded with a reworded version of the same talking point while adding: “I don’t have anything for you.”

The exchange was an example of what several foreign policy insiders tell The Washington Times has become a concerted White House effort to avoid taking a clear position on U.S. policy toward Syria’s 2-year-old civil war.”Obama does not want to lead on Syria,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and edits the Syria Comment blog.

“He doesn’t want to get into mission creep and is trying to avoid spending a lot of money,” said Mr. Landis, who believes Mr. Obama’s assessment is rooted in the notion that Syria is “already broken” and “once you take leadership, you own it.”

A Cabinet divided

The catch, other analysts say, is that Mr. Obama’s position has not been derived from a consensus among his advisers, several of whom apparently have been advocating for months that the U.S. take a more aggressive — even militarized — leadership role toward ending the conflict in Syria.

The most clear divisions have arisen over whether the U.S. should directly arm rebels fighting Syrian military forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

The administration has suggested publicly the high risk of U.S. weaponry ending up in the hands of Islamist extremists believed to be among those fighting Mr. Assad. The State Department has leveled sanctions against one group, the al-Nusra Front, on grounds that it is an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq — an organization that just a few years ago was targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.

Some senior Cabinet officials, however, have argued privately that the presence of the extremists provides all the more reason for the U.S. to move weapons to more secular forces in the opposition so that the extremists do not totally take over the fight.

Mr. Obama, evidently, has resisted that argument.

During congressional testimony in February, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta revealed how the White House blocked a plan to directly arm Syria’s rebels, despite its backing by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former CIA Director David H. Petraeus.

One source familiar with U.S. policy on Syria said the resistance to getting more deeply involved in the conflict appeared to be a “top-down decision.”

The source, who agreed to speak frankly with The Times on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Obama “hopes there could be a political solution to the conflict, when there just isn’t one.”

“I think it’s just denial,” said the source, who suggested the president has grown increasingly unwilling during recent months to acknowledge publicly or privately that his policy has failed.

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