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, U.S. sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.
The sources said that 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.
Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorization, an action not previously reported, could not be determined and the full extent of clandestine support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear, Reuters reported.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment.
The report noted that the White House is for now apparently stopping short of giving the rebels lethal weapons, even as some U.S. allies do just that. U.S. and European officials, however, 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.
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" of the base, according to the report, 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 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 told Reuters that 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.
Some conservative U.S. lawmakers, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticized Obama’s administration for moving too slowly to assist the rebels and have suggested the U.S. government become directly involved in arming Assad's opponents.