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U.S. may give Syrian rebels shoulder-fired missiles

| Friday, March 28, 2014, 8:33 p.m.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Obama is weighing whether to allow shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to be shipped to moderate factions of the Syrian opposition, possibly with help from the Saudi government, a U.S. official said Friday.

Obama “is considering” sending man-portable air defense systems, known as “manpads,” along with other supplies to help opposition groups fighting the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the official, who requested anonymity to talk about the internal White House discussions.

The Saudi government has long wanted to provide such armaments to bolster the Syrian opposition. The United States has opposed the move out of concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of extremists. Out of respect for Obama's wishes, the Saudis have held off.

But over time, the United States has become more familiar and comfortable with the opposition forces in Syria, the official said.

The manpads are just one item on a long list of military supplies being considered, the official said. Still, the move signals a shift that could aid the rebels, who have been losing ground to Syrian armed forces.

And it comes as a significant move toward the views held by Saudis at a time when they are expressing concerns about U.S. policies in the Middle East, including America's response to Syria's crackdown on rebel forces.

In public, advisers to Obama said the White House had not changed its position on providing manpads to the opposition, and that the matter did not come up as part of Obama's meeting with Saudi King Abdullah on Friday.

Speaking with reporters on Air Force One on the way to Riyadh on Friday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the risk of sophisticated weapons falling into the wrong hands in Syria is still a major concern.

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