After concluding that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the country’s insurgency, thus crossing a ‘red line,’ the Obama administration has decided to start sending arms to anti-Assad rebels for the first time, officials say.
The Obama administration has assessed that chemical weapons, most likely the nerve gas sarin, were used in battle against the Syrian rebels, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said in a statement.
The “intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” he said.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry branded the US statements on the use of chemical weapons a “caravan of lies”.
“The United States, in resorting to a shameful use of pretexts in order allow President Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition, shows that it has flagrant double standards in the way it deals with terrorism,”it said.
Syria had insisted in the past that it did not use its chemical arsenal in the ongoing conflict and would not do so unless invaded by a foreign nation.
President Obama has authorized to release of at least some US arms for Syria’s rebels as part of new military and political aid measures, according to a source who spoke with Reuters.
White House officials speculated over evidence that nerve gas had been used as of April, but that evidence is now being called “definitive” – with Congressional sources describing the conclusion as crossing the “red line” for US military intervention or backing as previously defined by the president.
“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition, that will involve providing direct support to the (Supreme Military Council), that includes military support,” Rhodes told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.
“This is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing to the SMC than what we have provided before,” he adds.
The change of US policy was praised by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday.
“I welcome clear US statement. Urgent that Syria regime should let UN investigate all reports of chemical weapons use,” he tweeted.
Rasmussen’s praise was echoed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who tweeted: “There is a dictatorial and brutal leader who is using chemical weapons under our noses against his own people.”
Russia scrutinized the evidence that made the US accuse Damascus of using chemical weapons against the rebels, but didn’t find it conclusive.
“The Americans tried to present us with information on the use of chemical weapons by the regime, but frankly we thought that it was not convincing,” said presidential aide Yury Ushakov on Friday.
Beijing called for restraint when commenting on the US allegations.
“China hopes that the UN will conduct an objective and fair investigation of the problem of chemical weapons in Syrian in accordance with the international law and the decisions of the UN Security Council,”Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told journalists on Friday.
The US is studying setting up a no-fly zone in Syria along its border with Jordan, according to US officials.
“Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Assad’s opponents,” one diplomat told Reuters. He said it would be limited “time-wise and area-wise”, without giving details.
The potential no-fly zone may stretch for up to 25 miles (40km) into Syrian territory, and would be set up in a bid to train and equip rebel forces and protect refugees, according to US media. The Wall Street Journal says even a limited no-fly zone may cost the US at much as $50 million per day while a full-scale operation would be much more expensive. The Pentagon hopes US foreign partners will help in footing the bill, if it comes to this.
France believes that the no-fly zone scenario is unlikely because it would require approval of the UN Security Council it said on Friday. Veto-holding members of the UNSC Russia and China are opposing foreign intervention into the Syrian crisis. A no-fly zone solution is viewed with suspicion in Moscow and Beijing after the Libyan debacle, where it resulted in a full-scale NATO bombing campaign, which tipped the balance in favor of rebels and allowed them to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Jordan currently has massive presence of US troops, which took part in a major exercise, dubbed Eager Lion. On Thursday Pentagon decided that it will keep its F-16 fighter jets and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles, which took part in the drill, according to a US defense official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
The US deployed its 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to take part in the exercise. The 2,400 troops and equipment were delivered by a group of three amphibious ships.
Congress was being notified of the conclusions over chemical weapons use in the country on Thursday in classified documents. Findings were corroborated by evidence sent to the US by France, which along with the UK claimed that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.
“There is a growing body persuasive evidence showing that the regime used – and continues to use – chemical weapons, including sarin,” a spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said Thursday.
“The room for doubt continues to diminish. Assad must grant the UN investigation unrestricted access to investigate on the ground in Syria and establish the full facts,” he added.
In a conference call to reporters on Thursday, the White House said that the intelligence community estimates that between 100 and 150 people have been killed by chemical weapons used by pro-Assad forces. That would be about 0.16 per cent (0.0016) of the 93,000 deaths in the Syrian conflict, which is the latest UN estimate of the death toll. The UN says more than 6,500 of the victims were minors, including more than 1,700 children under 10.
The White House said during the same call that the US “will make decisions on our own timeline” regarding the next steps on Syria. President Obama will consult with G8 partners, including Russia, about Syria next week.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham called on the US to provide “lethal assistance, especially ammunition & heavy weapons” to Syria’s rebels on Thursday.
“The President must rally an international coalition to take military actions to degrade Assad’s ability to use airpower and ballistic missiles and to move and resupply his forces around the battlefield by air,” said a joint statement by the pair.
As a UN probe was underway into allegations of chemical weapons use in May, lead investigator Carla Del Ponte said the findings showed that rebels were behind at least one chemical weapons attack. “This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” Del Ponte told Swiss TV.
But the final report released in early June said the UN investigators failed “to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator” in the investigated attacks.
On several occasions media reported seizure of small amounts of sarin from militants of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front. This happened both inside Syria and in neighboring Turkey, where many Syrian refugees live in camps along the border.
The US move comes at a crucial point when an effort is being made to start political settlement of the Syrian conflict at a conference in Geneva. The conference was organized by Russia and the US and is aimed at finding a way for the adversaries to agree on how a ceasefire can be established and a transitional government formed to end the two-year-long civil war.
The Obama administration did not reveal its timetable for providing military assistance to rebels, so it’s not clear whether it will start before the conference or afterwards in case of the talks’ failure.
Abayomi Azikiwe, international affairs expert and journalist, says that US claims will be used to justify intervention at a time when the rebels are threatened with defeat on the battlefield.
“Based upon the developments that have been taking place in Syria over the last two weeks, in regard to the removal of rebels from various parts of the country, and also the overall international situation — which is very disadvantageous to US or NATO direct intervention in Syria –I believe that this being utilized to provide a rationale and justification for the escalation of military, political as well as diplomatic pressure against the Syrian government,” he adds.
Author and historian Gerald Horne said that Washington’s allegations are in “flagrant contradiction” with an assessment from the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, and may only serve to escalate the conflict.
“They’re under enormous pressure from former US President Bill Clinton, who just came out with a statement criticizing the Obama administration for not intervening more deeply in the Syrian morass,” Horne said. “Mr. Obama’s former competitor, Senator John McCain of Arizona, just took to the floor of the United States Senate saying that arming the rebels is not enough, presumably calling for air strikes to create a no-fly zone. It seems to me this is a very dangerous and ominous moment, particularly as Sunni clerics have just met in Cairo, Egypt and called for a holy war against the Assad regime. Instead of trying to calm things down, it seems to me the Obama administration is about to throw gas on the flames.”