February 8, 2013 3:19 am

Panetta reveals US divisions over Syria

Divisions within the Obama administration over how to respond to the civil war in Syria spilled into the open on Thursday when the Pentagon said it had supported a plan to arm the rebels which the White House later rejected.

Leon Panetta, the outgoing defence secretary, told Congress that he had backed a plan developed by David Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and was also supported by Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state.

The CIA plan would have attempted to supply arms to those groups in the Syrian opposition who are viewed as not being hostile to US interests.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he had also supported the plan. Neither he nor Mr Panetta said why the White House vetoed the idea.

“Obviously there were a number of factors . . . that ultimately led to the president’s decision to make it nonlethal,” Mr Panetta said. “I supported his decision in the end.”

The Obama administration has been extremely cautious about intervening in the Syrian conflict, with the Pentagon consistently ruling out any direct involvement by US troops or the implementation of a no-fly zone.

However, officials started working on a plan to train and arm selected groups of rebels from last summer after the failure of the former UN envoy Kofi Annan’s efforts to broker a political solution to the conflict.

Mr Panetta’s comments brought into the open a dispute that has been raging within the administration for months. With regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar already arming rebel groups, some US officials have argued that the US should at least try to promote elements of the opposition that might be favourable to the US.

However, other US officials argued that it would be difficult to control where the weapons eventually would end up and feared a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980s when the US armed jihadi groups that later turned against the west.

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