WASHINGTON -- The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures.
The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear -- a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria's civil war.
The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Barack Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.
The arms are being delivered as the United States is also shipping new types of nonlethal gear to rebels. That aid includes vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.
U.S. officials hope that, taken together, the weapons and gear will boost the profile and prowess of rebel fighters in a conflict that started about 2 1/2 years ago.
Although the Obama administration signaled months ago that it would increase aid to Syrian rebels, the efforts have lagged because of the logistical challenges involved in delivering equipment in a war zone and officials' fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of jihadists.
Secretary of State John Kerry had promised in April that the nonlethal aid would start flowing "in a matter of weeks." The delays prompted several senior U.S. lawmakers to chide the Obama administration for not moving more quickly to aid the Syrian opposition after promising lethal assistance in June. The criticism has grown louder amid the debate over whether Washington should use military force against the Syrian regime, with some lawmakers withholding support until the administration committed to providing the rebels with more assistance.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has pressed the Obama administration to do more to help the rebels, said he felt embarrassed when he met with Syrians along the Turkish border three weeks ago.
"It was humiliating," he said in an interview last night. "The president had announced that we would be providing lethal aid, and not a drop of it had begun. They were very short on ammunition, and the weapons had not begun to flow."
The latest effort to provide aid is aimed at supporting rebel fighters who are under the command of Gen. Salim Idriss, according to officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because part of the initiative is covert. Idriss is the commander of the Supreme Military Council, a faction of the disjointed armed opposition.