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Senior senator questions White House secrecy on Syria

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday said the White House was harming U.S. national security interests by being too secretive about its plans to arm Syrian rebels.

Responding to a Reuters story, Senator Bob Corker said President Barack Obama's administration has fully briefed only members of the Senate and House of Representatives Intelligence committees on details of its plans to aid to rebels fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Reuters reported on Monday that members of both intelligence panels have expressed reservations behind closed doors about the effort to arm the rebels and are holding up the delivery of the weapons. Sources said members worry that the weapons will not be enough to tip the balance in the conflict and that the arms might end up in the hands of Islamist militants.

"It is unacceptable to hide such a fundamental foreign policy matter from the vast majority of Congress and the American people," Corker said in a statement. "This approach is not appropriate and it just wastes time at the expense of our national interests."

Corker was the co-author of a bill calling upon the United States to arm the Syrian rebels that the foreign relations committee passed by a strong margin in May. That measure has yet to come to the full Senate for a vote, which some congressional aides have attributed to concern that it might not have enough votes for passage by the 100-member body.

Separately, two other senators called for the United States to increase military pressure on Assad's government, after a trip to neighboring Turkey and Jordan to study the situation in Syria.

Senators Carl Levin, a Democrat, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, called on the United States and other members of the "London 11" - countries that met in Qatar in June to discuss Syria - to convene a meeting to plan for additional measures to increase pressure on Assad's government.

Levin is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, as such, an ex-officio member of the intelligence panel. King is a member of both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.

"Advancing the goal of a political settlement will require actions to change the military dynamic in Syria and convince the Assad regime and its supporters that momentum is not on their side and that their best option is a political solution," the two senators said in a statement.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)

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