Rebels fighting to depose Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad have, for the first time, acquired a small supply of surface-to-air missiles, according to a news report on Tuesday.
NBC News reported that the rebel Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen of the weapons, which were delivered to them via neighboring Turkey.
Reuters reported that indications are that the U.S. government, which has said it opposes arming the rebels, is not responsible for the delivery of the missiles.
However, the Reuters report noted, some U.S. government sources have been saying for weeks that Arab governments seeking to oust Assad, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pressing for such missiles, also known as MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems), to be supplied to the rebels.
In recent days, air operations against the rebels by Syrian government forces appear to have been stepped up, particularly around the city of Aleppo, making the rebels' need for MANPADs more urgent.
It is unclear precisely what kind of MANPADs have been delivered to Syrian rebels and NBC News did not provide details.
Some conservative U.S. lawmakers, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticized President Barack 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.
The White House has taken a considerably more cautious approach.
As of last month, Reuters reported, U.S. officials warned that if any Middle Eastern nation was “even considering giving arms to the Syrian opposition,” it ought to “take a measured approach and think twice about providing arms that could have unintended consequences.”
Nonetheless, noted the report, even at that time U.S. and allied officials acknowledged that officials of Saudi Arabia and Qatar were discussing whether surface-to-air missiles might help Syrian rebels bring down Russian-made helicopters and other aircraft the Syrian army was using to move troops between trouble spots.
Recent intelligence and news reporting has suggested a growing number of militants, including some affiliated with Al-Qaeda, have traveled to Syria to try to join anti-Assad forces. U.S. officials have said, however, that they do not believe the militants yet play a dominant role in the Syrian opposition.
Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly is expected to hold a meeting on the crisis in Syria on Thursday. Diplomats said the assembly it will likely vote on a Saudi-drafted resolution that condemns the Security Council for failing to take action against Damascus.