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Obama authorized secret support for Syrian rebels

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President
Barack Obama has signed a secret
order authorizing U.S. support for
rebels seeking to depose Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad and his
government, sources familiar with the matter said. 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. 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. The White House is for now
apparently stopping short of giving
the rebels lethal weapons, even as
some U.S. allies do just that. But U.S. and European officials have
said that there have been noticeable
improvements in the coherence and
effectiveness of Syrian rebel groups in
the past few weeks. That represents a
significant change in assessments of the rebels by Western officials, who
previously characterized Assad's
opponents as a disorganized, almost
chaotic, rabble. Precisely when Obama signed the
secret intelligence authorization, an
action not previously reported, could
not be determined. The full extent of clandestine support
that agencies like the CIA might be
providing also is unclear. White House spokesman Tommy
Vietor declined comment. 'NERVE CENTER' A U.S. government source
acknowledged 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, Reuters reported that,
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 "nerve center" 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. Turkey's moderate Islamist
government has been demanding
Assad's departure with growing
vehemence. Turkish authorities are
said by current and former U.S.
government officials to be increasingly involved in providing
Syrian rebels with training and
possibly equipment. European government sources said
wealthy families in Saudi Arabia and
Qatar were providing significant
financing to the rebels. Senior officials
of the Saudi and Qatari governments
have publicly called for Assad's departure. On Tuesday, NBC News reported that
the Free Syrian Army had obtained
nearly two dozen surface-to-air
missiles, weapons that could be used
against Assad's helicopters and fixed-
wing aircraft. Syrian government armed forces have employed such air
power more extensively in recent
days. NBC said the shoulder-fired missiles,
also known as MANPADs, had been
delivered to the rebels via Turkey. On Wednesday, however, Bassam al-
Dada, a political adviser to the Free
Syrian Army, denied the NBC report,
telling the Arabic-language TV
network Al-Arabiya that the group
had "not obtained any such weapons at all." U.S. government sources said
they could not confirm the MANPADs
deliveries, but could not rule them out
either. Current and former U.S. and European
officials previously said that weapons
supplies, which were being organized
and financed by Qatar and Saudi
Arabia, were largely limited to guns
and a limited number of anti-tank weapons, such as bazookas. Indications are that U.S. agencies have
not been involved in providing
weapons to Assad's opponents. In
order to do so, Obama would have to
approve a supplement, known as a
"memorandum of notification, to his initial broad intelligence finding. Further such memoranda would have
to be signed by Obama to authorize
other specific clandestine operations
to support Syrian rebels. Reuters first reported last week that
the White House had crafted a
directive authorizing greater U.S.
covert assistance to Syrian rebels. It
was unclear at that time whether
Obama had signed it. OVERT SUPPORT Separately from the president's secret
order, the Obama administration has
stated publicly that it is providing
some backing for Assad's opponents. 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. The State Department also says the
United States has set aside $64 million
in humanitarian assistance for the
Syrian people, including contributions
to the World Food Program, the
International Committee of the Red Cross and other aid agencies. Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury
confirmed it had granted
authorization to the Syrian Support
Group, Washington representative of
one of the most active rebel factions,
the Free Syrian Army, to conduct financial transactions on the rebel
group's behalf. The authorization was
first reported on Friday by Al-Monitor,
a Middle East news and commentary
website. Last year, when rebels began
organizing themselves to challenge
the rule of Libyan leader Muammar
Gaddafi, Obama also signed an initial
"finding" broadly authorizing secret
U.S. backing for them. But the president moved cautiously in
authorizing specific measures to
support them. Some U.S. lawmakers, such as
Republican Senators John McCain and
Lindsey Graham, have criticized
Obama for moving too slowly to assist
the rebels and have suggested the
U.S. government become directly involved in arming Assad's
opponents. Other lawmakers have suggested
caution, saying too little is known
about the many rebel groups. Recent news reports from the region
have suggested that the influence
and numbers of Islamist militants,
some of them connected to al Qaeda
or its affiliates, have been growing
among Assad's opponents. U.S. and European officials say that, so
far, intelligence agencies do not
believe the militants' role in the anti-
Assad opposition is dominant. While U.S. and allied government
experts believe that the Syrian rebels
have been making some progress
against Assad's forces lately, most
believe the conflict is nowhere near
resolution, and could go on for years. (Additional reporting by Tabassum
Zakaria and Arshad Mohammed;
Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter

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