President Obama and Saudi King Abdullah meet with interpreters nearby… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )
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 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 U.S. 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 so far held off.
The president and his advisors still have concerns about proliferation, 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, as the White House looks to broaden its coordination with allies in the region.
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 the U.S. response to Syria's crackdown on rebel forces.
In public, advisors 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 Advisor Ben Rhodes said the risk of sophisticated weapons falling into the wrong hands in Syria is still a major concern.
"We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria,” Rhodes said.
But later in the day, a second U.S. official, who also asked not to be identified, suggested there may be room for flexibility.
“It is the case that, over time, we have been able to develop deeper relations with the opposition,” the official said. “We’ve also sought to bring together and harmonize the approaches of different countries in the region.”
The goal now is better coordination, the official continued, adding that the administration feels it has made progress on that front.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has offered to supply the opposition with manpads and anti-tank guided missiles.
In the right hands, the missiles, a potent weapon, could seriously threaten the Syrian air force, analysts say. But U.S. and Israeli officials have feared that they could be used by terrorists to bring down commercial airliners, including in Israel. The U.S. government has worked for years to try to buy up excess inventory around the world.
There have been hints for many months that U.S. officials might shift position on the missiles in hopes of dissuading Syrian attacks. There has been a debate within the government about the wisdom of such a step.
Meanwhile, as the bloody civil war drags on, the Saudis have begun to clamor for a more vigorous Western response. After key members of Abdullah’s inner circle began talking about breaking off to “go it alone,” U.S. diplomats began working to mend fences.
The repair mission was part of Obama’s goal with his visit to the kingdom on Friday.
The information from U.S. officials that Obama is considering supplying air defense systems came a few hours after he met with Abdullah.