The U.S. will provide small arms and ammunition to the Syrian opposition amid recent battlefield setbacks by rebels and after saying it confirmed that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in the civil war.
President Barack Obama is authorizing lethal military aid to rebel groups under a classified order instructing the Central Intelligence Agency to arrange delivery of the weapons, according to a U.S. official familiar with the decision who asked not to be identified discussing the move.
Obama’s calculus on Syria has shifted as support for Assad from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has reversed opposition gains. Details on the order emerged after a White House announcement yesterday that the U.S. would boost military aid, though the president’s aides refused to say during a briefing with reporters whether that support included lethal assistance.
“It’s particularly urgent right now in terms of the situation on the ground, in some respect, because we have seen Hezbollah and Iran increase their own involvement,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “That has added an element of urgency.”
The decision to arm the opposition was prompted by rebel losses rather than by U.S. confirmation, announced yesterday, that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, according to the official familiar with the move. Whether to provide heavier weapons is still being debated amid concerns that such material could fall into terrorist hands, the official said.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters in London today that he welcomes Obama’s “candid” assessment about chemical weapons use, while saying Britain had made no decision to arm the opposition.
“We must work with our allies and friends in the region to do everything we can to bring this conflict to an end,” Cameron said.
Syria will be a main topic next week when Obama and other world leaders gather for the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland. Obama will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the U.S. has been pressing to end support for Assad. Obama also may seek a unified plan with European allies for aiding the rebels. The G-8 is composed of leaders from the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.
Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters in Moscow today that the U.S. assertion that Assad used chemical arms is “unconvincing.” Efforts to convene an international peace conference on Syria next month may be in jeopardy if Obama “hardens” the U.S. stance on the conflict and arms the rebels, he said.
During yesterday’s briefing, Rhodes said Assad’s forces had used the nerve gas sarin on a “small scale” several times, causing 100 to 150 deaths. Obama repeatedly has said the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime would cross a “red line” for the U.S.
The president has made a decision that the U.S. will provide assistance to rebels that has “direct military purposes” on the ground for the Supreme Military Council, the main civilian opposition’s military arm, Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the administration has “not made any decision to pursue” establishing a no-fly zone over Syria.
Former President Bill Clinton, who at a forum earlier this week pressed Obama to take a more active role to assist rebels, said in an appearance today on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that “it looks to me like this thing is trending in the right direction now” in terms of White House involvement and outreach to allies.
“About 90,000 people have died there and, of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of refugees,” Clinton said.
The White House now “has made it clear that they intend to do more” and “right now they don’t want to talk about the details, and I don’t blame them, because the less they talk about the details, the more likely their increased assistance is likely to be effective,” he said.
Andrew Tabler, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Obama administration announcement, because of its vagueness, is “an underwhelming response unless there’s something more to it.”
White House silence on the question of arming the rebels may reflect covert aspects or a multilateral plan that is not ready to be announced, 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 deliveries haven’t begun yet and will be carried out overland through neighboring Turkey and Jordan, according to the official. By using the CIA, the official said, the U.S. avoids having to go through the United Nations Security Council, where China and Russia have both blocked measures targeting Assad’s government during the conflict.
The CIA will supply the rebels with arms they already know how to use, most of which are Soviet- or Russian-made, the official said.
The head of the rebel’s Supreme Military Command, Major General Salim Idris, has appealed to the U.S. and others for weapons, from ammunition to anti-aircraft missiles, to fend off advances by Assad’s forces and its allies, including Lebanese militia fighters from Hezbollah, a group that the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said only a negotiated peace agreement can end the fighting and that sending weapons to the rebels or the Assad regime only worsens the Syrian conflict.
“Providing arms to either side would not address this current situation,” Ban told reporters in New York. “I have been urging all the parties concerned that there is no such military solution.”
Last week, rebels lost the strategically located city of al-Qusair, giving government forces control of the road that leads from Damascus to Lebanon. The 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 al-Qusair.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has led calls in Congress for the U.S. to arm the Syrian rebels, said on the Senate floor yesterday that Obama had decided to send weapons only to back 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 Obama administration has previously 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. has said it would provide humanitarian aid to the Syrians and provide the opposition with non-lethal equipment such as vehicles, communications gear and night-vision goggles.
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.
Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who has pressed to use U.S. firepower to create a “safe zone,” said the administration’s announcement paves the way for the U.S. to arm rebels. Still, he said, “I don’t have any specific indication they’re ready to take a step in arming in a robust way.”
From Rhodes’s comments alone, “I don’t think it’s at all clear” how far Obama is prepared to go, Casey said, urging the president to give lawmakers more detail.
Casey, who spoke with Idris by phone a day earlier, said of the opposition leader, “He was very clear: Machine guns and RPGs can’t complete with air power. He asked specifically in addition to conventional arms for anti-tank weapons that could deal with the Russian tanks and also anti-aircraft weapons.”
The public confirmation of Assad’s chemical weapons use came a day after top U.S. national security officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met at the White House to discuss options for Syria, according to a U.S. official.
The U.S. has been considering “all options, barring boots on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing yesterday.
Those options include weapons, providing intelligence support such as information on troop movements from satellite imagery, military training, and U.S. military actions such as establishing a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria.
In a move to increase support for the rebels, the U.S. on June 12 waived restrictions on some exports to opposition-held areas of Syria to help people there survive and rebuild.
The waiver let U.S. companies 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.