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Arming Syrian rebels: Too little, too late?

A rebel fighter claims for victory after he fires a shoulder-fired missile toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida...
A rebel fighter claims for victory after he fires a shoulder-fired missile toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding...

President Obama’s administration confirmed the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Thursday and pledged to increase support to the Syrian opposition fighters, including limited small arms, in a move some lawmakers are criticizing as “too little, too late.”

In the weeks since U.S. intelligence found "with varying degrees of confidence" that the embattled Syrian leader had used chemical weapons including sarin nerve gas against his own people, Assad gained the upper hand in a few crucial Syrian strongholds with the aid of Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters. Amid mounting pressure from Congress, including Senator John McCain, and from former President Bill Clinton and U.S. allies including Britain and France, President Obama announced Thursday that the rebel forces will receive unspecified weaponry from the U.S. The cache is likely to include small arms and ammunition, short of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles the rebels sought. NBC News confirmed Thursday that establishing a limited no-fly zone, likely near the Jordanian border, is also under consideration.

Senator McCain, a chief critic of President Obama's policy toward Syria, announced on the Senate floor Thursday that "we will be assisting the Syrian rebels in Syria by providing them with weapons and other assistance," appearing to go a step further than Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes' statement pledging "military support --not necessarily including lethal aid. McCain continued calls to send "anti tank" and "anti air" weaponry to rebel factions and released a statement with Sen. Lindsay Graham advocating for a no-fly zone.

Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, sharply criticized the Obama administration's handling of the more-than-two-year-old conflict, saying, “The problem is this administration has once again led from behind. They have not provided leadership. They didn't start providing support that might have made a difference early on. I hope it’s not too late, but possibly better late than never.”

Democratic Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina told msnbc's Richard Lui Friday that "if it is a fact that Assad is using chemical weapons there in Syria, a no fly zone at a minimum ought to be employed."

Former President Bill Clinton waded into the fray Tuesday at a summit led by McCain, reportedly remarking, "Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out.’ I think that’s a big mistake.”

The latest polling by NBC News in conjunction with The Wall Street Journal shows that only 15% of respondents favor military intervention in Syria, while 11% favor sending arms to the opposition forces. A plurality of respondents--more than four in ten-- favor providing only humanitarian assistance.

Appearing on Morning Joe Friday, Clinton said he was surprised his comments at Tuesday's closed-press event caused such a stir, but reiterated, "I think that we should support the rebel groups more vigorously. The White House announced that they were going to do that.”

Just this week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released findings that 93,000 Syrians have been killed in the past 28 months, representing nearly 30,000 new deaths since the last report was issued, accounting for the period through November 2012.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron backed up the U.S. assertion that Assad has used chemical weapons against his people, citing credible evidence obtained from samples tested by the British. He stopped short of following Obama's lead in arming the rebels, but reiterated his support for petitioning the European Union to lift an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition forces at the end of May, with assistance from the French.

"First of all, we've made no decision to arm the opposition, but it was right to lift the arms embargo. The information about chemical weapons further shows the folly of having some embargo that gives some sort of moral equivalence to President Assad and the legitimate opposition. We will continue to support, train and assist, and work with the opposition," Cameron said in a statement Friday.

The topic of Syria is bound to be front and center at next week's G8 summit, where President Obama is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladamir Putin. The United States has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Russian government, along with the Iranian government, to stop supplying Assad's regime with weapons. Yuri Ushakov, an aide Putin, disputed the U.S. claims of chemical weapons used in Syria on Friday, saying the evidence "doesn't look convincing to us."

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have been attempting peace talks in Geneva, with the U.S. tasked with bringing the rebel leaders to the negotiating table, and the Russians ushering in Assad's regime.

Ushakov said Friday that the White House plan to increase aid to the rebels “will certainly not help the preparations for the international conference, if the United States really decides to in fact render larger-scale assistance to the rebels."