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rebel fighters pose 370.(Photo by: REUTERS)
'US decision to arm Syrian rebels made weeks ago'
'Washington Post' quotes officials as saying Obama planned to send weaponry as early as April; Assad's forces pound Damascus.
US officials have reportedly said that the determination to send weapons to the Syrian opposition had been made as early as April, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons merely provided fresh justification to act.

According to The Washington Post, US President Barack Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels followed over a year of internal debate.

The Post report stated that once Syrian government ­forces, with assistance from Hezbollah and Iran, began to turn the war in Assad’s favor, "Obama ordered officials in late April to begin planning what weaponry to send and how to deliver it."

Quoting US officials, the Post report stated that April decision effectively ended the lengthy debate in the White House. On Thursday, a US official said Obama had authorised sending US weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time.

As the debate appears to be put to bed, Syrian artillery and warplanes pounded rebel areas in Damascus on Saturday as President Bashar Assad's foes pleaded for advanced weapons from the United States, which has promised them unspecified military aid.

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Western powers have been reluctant in the past to arm Syrian insurgents, let alone give them sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that might fall into the hands of Sunni Islamist insurgents in rebel ranks who have pledged loyalty to al-Qaida.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander Salim Idriss told Reuters on Friday that rebels, who have suffered setbacks at the hands of Assad's forces in recent weeks, urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, as well as a protective no-fly zone.

"But our friends in United States, they haven't told us yet that they are going to support us with weapons and ammunition," he said after meeting US and European officials in Turkey.

A source in the Middle East familiar with US dealings with the rebels has said planned arms supplies would include automatic weapons, light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Western diplomats said on Friday the United States was considering a no-fly zone over Syria, but the White House said later that it would be far harder and costlier to set up one up there than it was in Libya, stressing that the United States had no national interest in pursuing that option.

Outgunned rebels have few ways to counter Assad's air power. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said jets and artillery had attacked Jobar, a battered district where rebels operate on the edge of central Damascus, on Saturday.

It said heavy artillery was also shelling opposition fighters in the provinces of Homs, Aleppo and Deir al-Zor.

A Turkish official said 71 Syrian army officers, including six generals, had defected to Turkey, in the biggest single mass desertion from Assad's military in months.

The United Nations says at least 93,000 people, including civilians and combatants, have died in the Syrian civil war, with the monthly death toll averaging 5,000 in the past year.
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