LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Discussions within the Obama administration in favor of providing arms to the Syrian rebels are gaining ground amid new indications that President Bashar Assad's regime may have launched additional chemical weapons attacks, U.S. and other diplomatic officials say.
As the number of suspected attacks grows, U.S. officials said intelligence agencies are seeing signs that Syrian opposition forces may be distancing themselves from the al-Qaida-linked group there -- chipping away at one of the key arguments against giving lethal aid to the rebels. Yet, at the same time, the fighters associated with the extremist group are among the most effective against the regime. Assad displayed new confidence, going on the offensive in the hopes of taking advantage of ill will against the extremist group.
Officials insisted Wednesday that no decisions have been made but said arming the rebels is seen as more likely and preferable than any other military option. One U.S. official described a new "reconsideration" within the administration of the military options. The officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss publicly the options under consideration, said most U.S. leaders prefer that the Syrians determine their own fate, so arming the opposition is more palatable than direct U.S. intervention.
The administration announced last week that it believes Assad has used chemical weapons but said the intelligence wasn't clear enough to be certain that the regime has crossed President Barack Obama's announced "red line" of definite chemical weapons use that he said would have "enormous consequences" for Assad's government.
Some senior leaders, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are skeptical about the wisdom of providing arms to such a broad and complex mix of opposition groups. But officials say there is a growing realization that, under increasing pressure from Congress and other allied nations, the U.S. might soon have to do more for the Free Syrian Army.
The two-year civil war has left an estimated 70,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
High-level meetings on the latest developments in the issue have been going on all week, including one between Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who just returned from the Mideast.
According to a U.S. official and a U.N. diplomat, intelligence agencies are looking into allegations that chemical weapons were used in Syria after the two March 19 attacks that U.S., British, French and Qatari officials have referred to. They provided no details on the new alleged attacks.
This emerging shift within the administration comes even as Assad and his allies insisted that the momentum in the civil war is now in their favor and that the world's reluctance to intervene in the conflict is more evidence that the Assad regime is regaining its hold on the country.
Obama signaled Tuesday he would consider U.S. military action against Syria if "hard, effective evidence" is found to bolster intelligence that chemical weapons have been used in the civil war. Damascus has denied it has used chemical weapons, saying the Syrian rebels are trying to frame the regime.
The U.S. has provided humanitarian aid to the Syrians and helped bolster the defenses along the borders in neighboring Turkey and Jordan, but has preferred to let other nations send in more lethal assistance.
A key obstacle in the debate over providing weapons has been U.S. concerns that any U.S. weapons would end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups helping the Syrian opposition or any of the other extremist groups in the region, such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
Last month, the head of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful and effective rebel groups in Syria, pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. U.S. officials say that since then they have seen anecdotal evidence and intelligence assessments that suggest that al-Nusra's gains within Syria have slowed, both because of the group's public links to al-Qaida and the U.S. designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. Other opposition members, they said, now appear to view al-Nusra more warily.
In public comments Tuesday, Dempsey said the U.S. could provide weapons that might make the rebels more "militarily effective."
But, he warned, it's not clear "whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire, which is, you know, an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria."
However, a U.S. official said military planners believe that it would be possible to vet the rebel fighting forces and that those under Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss and the Supreme Military Council are seen as independent of al-Nusra.