Middle East Nations Mulling Arms For Syrian Rebels

As Pentagon mulls options, a Syrian opposition source says Middle East nations might arm rebel fighters.

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Syrian opposition officials are hearing rumblings that several Middle Eastern nations are in talks about arming rebel fighters.

"There are several countries that are talking frequently behind closed doors," says a Syrian Revolutionary Council source. "There are a lot of meetings taking place."

The source tells DOTMIL the Middle Eastern nations are discussing what kinds of weapons rebel fighters need to take on the military of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, which has been pounding opposition fighters from the air, and from the ground with artillery and tank fires.

The United Nations estimates the months-long civil strife has killed at least 9,000 people, while opposition groups put the death toll closer to 11,000.

[See images of the violence in Syria.]

Despite a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect weeks ago, Assad's forces continue their barrage. Regional and U.S. officials view that so-called peace plan as a failure.

"I would say it is failing," Kathleen Hicks, nominated to the Pentagon's deputy policy chief, told a Senate panel Thursday. She currently is the deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans, and forces.

As the death toll mounts, "several countries in the region now believe arming the rebels is the only way to stop Assad," the council source says. The Middle Eastern nations have discussed providing rebel elements rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 automatic rifles, and weapons that would be "able to neutralize tanks."

U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have followed Washington's lead in balking at providing weapons to Syrian rebel forces.

The White House on Tuesday denied that is pressing those and other Middle East nations to withhold arming the Syrian rebels.

"We've publicly and privately expressed our concerns about further militarizing the situation [in Syria]," a White House official said Tuesday. "That said, sovereign nations make decisions based on their own interests. We can't tell them what to do."

Syrian resistance leaders are frustrated with the Obama administration's very public stance in opposition to arming even some rebel fighters, saying such remarks embolden Assad and his loyalist fighters.

Hicks told senators the Pentagon is examining "all kinds of plans" for getting involved in Syria should President Obama order that. The U.S. has provided Syrian rebels communications gear and other non-lethal assistance.

GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a vocal proponent of arming the resistance forces, slammed the White House, asking Hicks if defense officials believe "non-lethals really do the job against tanks and artillery?"

Though U.S. officials continue to echo the White House's stance about further escalating the civil war, the council source says Washington is aware of the regional talks.

"Those countries won't take any steps without the approval of the United States," the source says.

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