Obama signs order supporting Syria’s rebels, reports say

US government source acknowledges that US is collaborating with a secret ‘nerve centre’ operated by Turkey and its allies

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticised Obama for moving too slowly to assist the rebels. Photograph: Reuters

Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorising US support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad government, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence finding broadly permits the CIA and other US agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust President Bashar al-Assad.

This and other developments point to growing support for Assad’s armed opponents – which has intensified following last month’s failure by the UN security council to agree on tougher sanctions against the Damascus government.

The White House is for now apparently stopping short of arming the rebels directly, even though some US allies are.

But US and European officials 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 characterised Assad’s opponents as a disorganised, chaotic, rabble.

Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorisation, an action not previously reported, could not be determined.

The full extent of support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment.

A government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the US was collaborating with a secret command centre 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 military and communications support to Assad’s opponents.

This “nerve centre” is in Adana, a city about 60 miles (100km) from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, an American air base where US 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 US government officials to be increasingly involved in providing Syrian rebels with training and possibly equipment.

European government sources said 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. Syrian government armed forces have employed 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.

On Wednesday, however, Bassam al-Dada, a political adviser to the Free Syrian Army, denied the NBC report, telling the Arabic-language TV network al-Arabiya that the group had “not obtained any such weapons at all”. US government sources said they could not confirm the Manpads deliveries, but could not rule them out either.

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