According to U.S. sources familiar with the matter, President Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence “finding,” broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad.
It was unclear when the president signed the authorization for Syria, but the sources said it was within the past several months.
Reuters writes that this and other developments signal a shift toward growing, albeit still circumscribed, support for Assad’s armed opponents – a shift that intensified following last month’s failure of the U.N. Security Council to agree on tougher sanctions against the Damascus government.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department approved a license allowing the Washington Syrian Support Group to provide direct financial assistance to the Free Syrian Army. According to CNN, the Washington-based representative of the Free Syrian Army is allowed to conduct financial transactions on the rebel group’s behalf but is not allowed to send military equipment.
Separately from the secret order, the Obama administration has announced publicly that it is providing some backing for Assad’s opponents.
For instance, the State Department said on Wednesday the U.S. government had set aside a total of $25 million for “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian opposition. A U.S. official said that was mostly for communications equipment, including encrypted radios.
Sources told CNN that Washington is cooperating with countries that are arming the rebels, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to help find groups worthy of aid. Diplomatic sources have also stated the United States is providing intelligence on Syrian troop movements, which is then passed to rebel groups.
A U.S. government source said that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.
Last week along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents.
This base is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence.
Foreign policy experts on Wednesday called on the Obama administration to increase its support of the armed opposition.
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that the United States should start arming the Syrian opposition, but only under the right conditions.
“At this point, given the direction of the conflict, I think that what we need to do is assess which groups could we and should we arm at what point, and make that decision,” Tabler told the Senate panel.
“I think that we’re actually at that decision, given where the conflict is going,” he said.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel now with the Brookings Institution, recommended arming the opposition, but in a “wise way.”
“We need to do it in a way that, first of all, we understand who we’re supporting and what their intentions are,” Indyk said.