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Syrian rebels want big weapons

US assistance welcomed but called ‘late step’

A rebel fighter planned to launch a homemade rocket at a regime-held airport on Friday.

Hamid Khatib/Reuters

A rebel fighter planned to launch a homemade rocket at a regime-held airport on Friday.

BEIRUT — Syrian rebels on Friday described the US decision to provide them with arms as a ‘‘late step’’ and called for shipments to include heavy weaponry capable of tipping the balance of power on the battlefield.

The United States has said it would be ‘‘responsive to the needs’’ of the increasingly desperate rebels, but has not given details of what assistance will include.

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Initial consignments are expected to consist of small arms and ammunition, which the rebel Free Syrian Army said on Friday would be largely ‘‘meaningless.’’ The Syrian Opposition Coalition called for ‘‘strategic and decisive’’ support.

The use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad, confirmed by the White House on Thursday, coupled with increasing gains on the battlefield by the Syrian military in recent days, have left the United States and European nations scrambling to reassess their Syria policies.

Emboldened by their gains, the Syrian Army appears to be pushing on to try to secure the central cities of Hama and Homs, as well as Aleppo, to the north, where a buildup of troops has been reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes on Friday in the rebel-held eastern neighborhood of Sakhour were the most violent in the Aleppo in months.

Hezbollah’s leader vowed that his militants would keep fighting in Syria ‘‘wherever needed’’ after the United States agreed to arm the rebels, the Associated Press reported. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah signaled for the first time the Iranian-backed militant group will stay involved in the civil war after helping Assad’s army recapture the key town of Qusair in central Homs Province from rebels.

President Obama had long said the use of chemical weapons would be a ‘‘red line’’ for his administration, but he lagged behind allies France and Britain in saying there was compelling evidence of their use. United States intelligence indicates that chemical attacks during the conflict have left as many as 150 dead.

US officials are expected to meet with General Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, over the next two days to discuss details of military assistance that Washington can provide. Rebel leaders said Idriss will urge the US officials to offer a wider range of support.

‘‘We welcome the decision, but it is a late step. And if they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference?’’ said Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syria Army. ‘‘They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training, and a no-fly zone.’’

US officials said the administration could provide the rebels with small arms, ammunition, assault rifles, and a variety of antitank weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other missiles, the Associated Press reported.

In comments carried by the state news agency, the Syrian government said the White House’s statement on the use of chemical weapons was based on fabricated information and ‘‘full of lies.’’

It accused the United States of a ‘‘flagrant double standard policy’’ by providing arms, money, and political cover to ‘‘terrorist groups,’’ while claiming it wants to combat terrorism. The Syrian government generally refers to rebel forces as ‘‘terrorists.’’

Britain and France have also been weighing whether to arm the rebels, after a European Union arms embargo that prevented them from doing so expired at the end of May.

The White House has said it has not made any decision to pursue a no-fly zone, which would involve targeted airstrikes in order to remove air defenses.

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