The U.S. has confirmed that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria used chemical weapons against rebels and will escalate deliveries of military aid to opposition forces, an administration official said.
Assad’s forces used the nerve gas sarin on a “small scale” several times against the opposition, causing 100 to 150 deaths, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters on a conference call.
The U.S. is stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition, including aid that would have “direct military purposes on the ground,” Rhodes said, without elaborating. He refused to say whether that would include weapons.
“We’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance,” Rhodes said. He said the administration has “not made any decision to pursue” establishing a no-fly zone over Syria.
“We’ve prepared for many contingencies,” he said.
President Barack Obama repeatedly has said the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime would be a red line for the U.S. The administration has refrained from sending arms, in part because of concern that the weapons would make their way into the hands of Islamic radicals within the opposition.
The U.S. previously said it would consider bolstering humanitarian supplies to rebels and equipment such as vehicles, communications gear and night-vision goggles.
“It’s an underwhelming response unless there’s something more to it,” said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It may be that the U.S. is working covertly or through allies, he said.
“I just think frankly we’re going to be looking at which rebels to arm, that we’re approaching the Rubicon but we haven’t crossed it,” Tabler said.
The Syrian rebellion will be a leading topic when Obama and other world leaders meet next week at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. The group is composed of leaders from the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.
Last week, Assad’s regime captured the strategically located city of al-Qusair, giving government forces control of the road that leads from Damascus to Lebanon. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the U.K., said Syrian forces have shifted their focus to the city of Homs, a rebel stronghold 30 kilometers (19 miles) northeast of Qusair.
In a move to increase support for the rebels, the U.S. yesterday waived restrictions on some exports to opposition-held areas of Syria to help people there survive and rebuild.
The waiver allows U.S. companies to avoid sanctions for the export of commodities, software and equipment to opposition-held territories in farming, food processing, power generation, oil and gas production, construction, engineering and transportation.
The confirmation that chemical weapons were used “adds an element of urgency” to helping the rebels, Rhodes said.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has led calls for the U.S. to arm the Syrian rebels, said on the Senate floor that Obama decided to send weapons only to back away away from that assertion in later comments.
“It’s my understanding that the president has not made the final decision on arming but he has made the decision that chemical weapons have been used,” McCain said. “I think it’s obvious that they will be providing weapons. They need a no-fly zone.”
The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed officials briefed on the matter, reported that Obama authorized the provision of arms to the rebels.
The U.S. has let other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supply weapons to the rebels and recently began an effort to channel all lethal aid through General Salim Idris, the head of the Syrian opposition’s military wing, in an effort to ensure that fewer weapons get into the hands of extremists.
At the same time, the administration has pushed a plan to open negotiations between rebels and the regime about a negotiated political transition that would have Assad step down.
The public confirmation of the chemical weapons came a day after top U.S. national security officials met at the White House to discuss options that may include arming the Syrian rebels.
Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among participants yesterday at the White House meeting on Syria policy, according to a U.S. official.
Kerry canceled plans for a trip to the Middle East this week to participate in the talks. The official asked not to be identified because the meeting wasn’t publicly announced.