The United States could make a decision as early as this week on whether to arm Syrian rebels, U.S. officials said on Monday, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put off a Middle East trip to attend meetings on the subject.
However, the U.S. government has debated for months whether to provide weaponry to the rebels in their civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and has so far decided against.
One U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity stressed that while a decision on whether to start arming the rebels is possible as soon as this week, deliberations on the issue could easily take longer.
Kerry put off a planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories to attend the White House meetings, an Obama administration source said.
What has changed in recent weeks is the tilting of the battlefield against the rebels as Lebanese Hezbollah has entered the fray on the side of Assad's forces, helping them to retake the strategic town of Qusair. .
That shift has made it less likely that a U.S. and Russian planned peace conference to bring the rebels and the government to the table would succeed in U.S. President Barack Obama's aim of a negotiated political transition to remove Assad from power.
Meanwhile, Israel's intelligence minister repeated a warning that Assad could prevail in the civil war because of backing from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Yuval Steinitz, minister for international affairs, strategy and intelligence, was asked at a briefing with foreign journalists Monday whether recent successes by Assad's forces against outgunned rebels might herald victory for the Syrian leader.
"I always thought that it might be the case that at the end of the day Assad, with a very strong Iranian and Hezbollah backing, might gain the upper hand," Steinitz said. "And I think that this is possible and I thought that this is possible already a long time ago."
Steinitz, who is not a member of Israel's security cabinet but does have access to intelligence updates as well as Netanyahu's ear, said Assad's government "might not just survive but even regain territories" from the rebels.