US President Barack Obama may allow shoulder-launched anti- aircraft missiles to be shipped to moderate factions of the Syrian opposition, possibly with help from the Saudi government, a US official said.
Obama is considering sending man-portable air defence systems, known as manpads, along with other supplies to help opposition groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said the official.
The Saudi government has long wanted to provide such armaments to bolster the Syrian opposition. The US has opposed the move out of concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of extremists. Out of respect for Obama's wishes, the Saudis have so far held off.
But the United States has gradually become more familiar and comfortable with the opposition forces in Syria, the official said.
In public, advisers to Obama said the White House had not changed its position on providing manpads to the opposition, and that the matter did not come up as part of Obama's meeting with Saudi King Abdullah.
Speaking with reporters on Air Force One on the way to Riyadh on Friday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the risk of sophisticated weapons falling into the wrong hands in Syria is still a major concern. "We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria," Rhodes said.
But later in the day, a second US official, who also asked not to be identified, suggested there may be room for flexibility. "It is the case that, over time, we have been able to develop deeper relations with the opposition," the official said.
In an interview aired on US television before he arrived in Saudi Arabia, Obama defended his administration's decision not to use military force in Syria, saying that the United States has its limits.
"It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship we've seen in Syria," Obama told broadcaster CBS in Rome. "It's not that it's not worth it," he added. "It's that after a decade of war, the United States has limits."
Obama also sought to reassure King Abdullah that negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme won't undercut the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia.
The US-Saudi relationship has been strained by the administration's reluctance to pursue military action in Syria, secret Iran negotiations and its support for the Arab Spring overthrow of former Egyptian president and ally Hosni Mubarak.
A boom in US energy production may reshape the US-Saudi alliance by making oil less of a bargaining chip. That would give Obama a freer hand on Middle East policy.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse