Obama to step up military support of Syrian rebels
FILE - In this April 30, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama answers questions during his new conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 30, 2013. U.S. officials said June 13, 2013, that the Obama administration has concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against the opposition seeking to overthrow him, crossing what Obama called a 'red line'. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
President Obama has authorized sending weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time, officials said yesterday, after the White House disclosed that the United States has conclusive evidence President Bashar Assad’s government used chemical weapons against opposition forces trying to overthrow him.
Obama has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” triggering greater American intervention in the two-year crisis.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and one of the strongest proponents of U.S. military action in Syria, said he was told yesterday that Obama had decided to “provide arms to the rebels,” a decision confirmed by three officials. The officials cautioned that no decisions had been made on the specific type of weaponry or when it would reach the Syrian rebels, who are under increasing assault from Assad’s forces.
Still, the White House signaled that Obama did plan to step up U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis in response to the chemical weapons disclosure.
“This is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The U.S. has so far provided the Syrian rebel army with rations and medical supplies.
Yesterday’s announcement followed a series of urgent meetings at the White House this week that revealed deep divisions within the administration over U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war. The proponents of more aggressive action – including Secretary of State John Kerry – appeared to have won out over those wary of sending weapons and ammunition into a war zone where Hezbollah and Iranian fighters are backing Assad’s armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists back the rebellion.
Obama still opposes putting American troops on the ground in Syria and the U.S. has made no decision on operating a no-fly zone over Syria, Rhodes said.
Officials said the administration could provide the rebels with a range of weapons, including small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other missiles. However, a final decision on the inventory has not been made.
Most of those would be weapons the opposition forces could easily use and not require much additional training to operate. Obama’s opposition to deploying American troops to Syria makes it difficult to provide much large-scale training. Other smaller-scale training can be done outside Syria’s borders.
All of the officials who spoke insisted on anonymity in order to discuss internal administration discussions.
Word of the stepped-up assistance followed new U.S. intelligence assessments showing that Assad has used chemical weapons, including sarin, on a small scale multiple times in the last year. Up to 150 people have been killed in those attacks, the White House said, constituting a small percentage of the 93,000 people killed in Syria over the last two years.