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Senator Levin 'confident' U.S. will step up support for Syrian rebels

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said on Tuesday he was confident after talking with President Barack Obama that the United States would step up its support for "vetted" elements of the Syrian opposition.

Senator Carl Levin said he urged the president, a fellow Democrat, to arm the Syrian rebels a day after two influential Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, sought similar assurances from Obama, who is trying to persuade lawmakers to authorize limited U.S. military action in Syria.

"I am confident after being in the Oval Office with the president this morning and the vice president and others, that we are going to make more robust our support for the Syrian opposition that is vetted," Levin told reporters.

Levin's reference to a "vetted" Syrian opposition reflects U.S. concerns about American weapons falling into the hands of certain rebel groups including those allied with the al Qaeda network responsible for the 2001 attacks on the United States. The rebels are seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Levin, a prominent Democratic voice on military matters, said he told the White House that the United States should provide rebels with arms such as anti-tank weapons "which cannot be turned on us."

"My plea to the president ... is that we facilitate a vetted opposition to help to degrade Assad's capability to use chemical weapons," Levin said.

McCain and Graham emerged from a White House meeting on Monday saying they believed Obama was willing to do more than fire off cruise missiles, and that he wanted to bolster the Syrian opposition.

Obama has been meeting with lawmakers as part of his attempt to secure congressional approval for a possible military strike in response to what the United States says was a sarin gas attack by the Syrian government that killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus on August 21.

Levin said that it would be difficult for U.S. cruise missiles to effectively target the components of the Syrian military that had used the chemical weapons, such as their artillery and rocket launchers. He said it would be easier to provide Syrian rebels with the armed capability to go after those components.

"The opposition in Syria has the power - if we facilitate them having this power, if we provide the weapons or have others provide certain key weapons, including anti-tank capabilities - to go after the Syrian military that used the chemical weapons," Levin said.

The White House said in June it had decided to provide military aid to Syrian rebels. But rebel sources have said no U.S.-provided weapons have arrived. U.S. officials have been concerned weapons could reach factions like the Nusra Front, one of the most effective rebel groups fighting Assad but one which is also seen as linked to al Qaeda.

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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