All options on the table regarding Syria, US officials

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - 9:03am

All options remain on the table as the Obama administration considers what, if any, military action to take in Syria following the suspected use of chemical weapons there, U.S. officials tell CNN.

They say this includes the possibility of providing arms to rebels even though the administration has opposed this step and several caution that its resistance to doing so is unlikely to change.

So far, the United States has provided communications and other non-lethal aid to the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a two-year civil war.

The administration recently announced that it would double that commitment to $250 million worth of assistance.

A final decision on the composition of the boosted aid will be made after consultation with military commanders, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Communications equipment, armor, night vision goggles, and vehicles are among items being discussed, Hayden said.

"As the President has said, our assistance to the Syrian opposition has been on an upward trajectory, and he has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance,"she said. "We continue to consider all other possible options that would accomplish our objective of hastening a political transition, but have no new announcements at this time."

But the Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Obama is preparing to send "lethal weaponry" to the opposition. But officials also emphasized in the report that supplying arms is one of several options under consideration.

The Post said Obama would likely make a final decision on arms in coming weeks.

Obama said at a news conference on Tuesday that the United States would wait until it has more details on evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria before making any decision on whether to alter strategy.

Obama previously called the use of chemical agents a "red line" for America. What that ultimately means has been an open question since the administration disclosed last week that intelligence had concluded "with varying degrees of confidence" those arms had been used in small amounts.

The United States doesn't yet know "how they were used, when they were used, who used them," Obama said. "When I am making decisions about American national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapons use, I have to make sure I have the facts."

Syria denies that it has used, or even possesses, chemical weapons.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told a Christian Science Monitor luncheon on Tuesday that the military continues to plan and develop options.

"We are looking to determine whether these options remain valid as conditions change," he said.

"Now that doesn't mean that what we've heard over the last week ago wouldn't change the policy calculus -- both in this capital and others. But militarily, our task has been to continue to plan, to continue to engage with partners in the region and to continue to refine options so that if we're asked to implement any of them we'll be ready to do that," he said.

But a senior U.S. official highly involved on Syria said the administration is "always planning and there is stepped up planning as a result of all this (chemical weapons) stuff."

"Aggressive leadership, yes. That means haranguing the opposition until they are blue in the face and talking to the Arabs and others, like we have been doing," the official said. "But there is no talk of arms and I would be stunned if we ever go down that route."

But another senior U.S. official, who is directly involved in military planning, said the issue of lethal aid remains on the table as a possible policy option just like everything else, but there is no indication that has accelerated in recent days for a possible policy change.

That official said concerns involve an opposition in Syria that has grown more diverse, magnifying the question of where arms might ultimately wind up.

New legal authorities would be required for arming rebels and allies in the region, like Jordan and Israel, are also nervous about increasing the flow of weapons already coming from Gulf States, the official said.

--CNN's Jessica Yellin, Elise Labott, Barbara Starr and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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