The National Security Council (NSC) recommended that the United States give non-lethal military assistance such as body armor and night vision goggles to the Syrian rebels last month, but U.S. President Barack Obama did not approve the recommendation, The Cable has learned.
Just before Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Rome last month to attend a "Friends of Syria" meeting, the principal officials who sit on the president's NSC came together and sent an "interagency recommendation" to the president advising him to make it U.S. policy to provide the armed Syrian opposition with items like body armor, night-vision goggles, and other military-related items that are not technically lethal, two administration sources said.
Obama did not approve the recommendation, which remains on his desk as one option for helping the Syrian rebels, among many that multiple parts of the U.S. government have seen shelved by the White House - though he has not explicitly rejected it, either.
The president's move, experts and lawmakers say, shows the extent of the president's unwillingness to move past the administration's standing policy of limiting U.S. support to the Syrian opposition to humanitarian, medical, and communications assistance.
"The principals all agreed to this and from the president it came back as Band Aids and halal happy meals, which is far less than we can do," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tabler views the president's move as a de facto rejection of the idea of providing the Free Syrian Army with anything it could use to turn the military tide against the army of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"I think it's pretty clear that the White House is rejecting this," said Tabler. "If that recommendation comes to the White House and it gets dialed back, it tells us that the president doesn't want to go in that direction but the rest of the bureaucracy does. The rest of the government has to deal with Syria the way that it is, which is that it is melting down."
The interagency recommendation represented a general consensus of the NSC, which includes Kerry, Vice President Joseph Biden, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Last summer, Panetta, Dempsey, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and then CIA Director David Petraeus all supported directly arming the Syrian rebels, but the White House rejected that idea.
A Feb. 26 Washington Post article just before Kerry's first trip as secretary of state portrayed the idea of providing body armor and night-vision goggles to the armed Syrian opposition as a "major policy shift" that had "not yet been finalized."
By the time Kerry arrived in Rome for the Feb. 28 meeting, following stops in Britain and France, he could only offer an additional $60 million in humanitarian aid. The Syrian opposition coalition, meanwhile, threatened not to attend the Rome meeting out of frustration with what it perceived as a lack of international support. The administration subsequently decided to send the Free Syrian Army 200,000 Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, most of which are set to expire in June.
Meanwhile, the British and French have been pushing for an end to the European Union's arms embargo on Syria and have successfully carved out exceptions for non-lethal military items such as body armor and night-vision goggles.
"This is what some Europeans are doing. We had the option of doing that. We didn't do that. The Europeans are ahead of us in that regard," Tabler said.
In response to questions from The Cable, NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to confirm or deny the interagency recommendation but defended the administration's actions on behalf of Syrians in need.
"I'm not going to discuss our internal deliberations. As the president has said, we are constantly reviewing every possible option that could help end the violence and accelerate a political transition," she said. "We are focusing our efforts on helping the opposition become stronger, more cohesive, and more organized."
U.S. assistance to the Syrian opposition has totaled $110 million, Hayden noted, and U.S. humanitarian assistance related to the Syria crisis now totals $385 million, making the United States the largest single provider of humanitarian aid.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties have become increasingly critical of the White House's Syria policy as the death toll mounts and the refugee problem worsens. There are now an estimated 80,000 deaths from the two-year conflict, according to the U.N., and the number of external refugees has topped 1 million.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) last week came out in favor of a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over parts of northern Syria using Patriot missile batteries currently stationed in Turkey.
Syrian opposition coalition president Moaz al-Khatib publicly called for the same at this week's Arab League meeting in Doha. He also lashed out at the international community for failing to give the Syrian rebels the means to protect civilians from the Assad military and fight back against the regime's airpower.
"There is an international conviction for the revolution not to succeed," Khatib said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the United States and NATO have no plans to turn their Patriot missile batteries on Syrian regime airplanes or move toward any military assistance for the Syrian rebels.
"Well, we are aware of the request and at this time, NATO does not intend to intervene militarily in Syria," he said. "I think that a Patriot missile battery I think would fall within the definition of military assistance."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) criticized the White House's decision not to approve the interagency recommendation in a statement to The Cable.
"One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry," McCain said. "This would be a farce if it weren't so tragic. In what moral universe would the U.S. not want to provide body armor and other non-lethal equipment to the brave Syrians who are fighting against Assad? Once again, it seems the President is isolated even within his own administration."