The Obama administration has concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government used chemical weapons against the rebels seeking to overthrow him and, in a major policy shift, President Obama has decided to supply military support to the rebels, the White House announced Thursday.
“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,” Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes told reporters.
President Obama has repeatedly said that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” that, if crossed, would be a “game changer” for more U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war.
“The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States,” said Rhodes in a separate written statement.
“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” he continued.
In terms of further response, Rhodes said, “we will make decisions on our own timeline” and that Congress and the international community would be consulted. Mr. Obama is heading to Northern Ireland Sunday for a meeting of the G8 group of nations; Rhodes indicated the president will consult with leaders of those countries.
“Any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives, which include achieving a negotiated political settlement to establish an authority that can provide basic stability and administer state institutions; protecting the rights of all Syrians; securing unconventional and advanced conventional weapons; and countering terrorist activity,” Rhodes said.
To date, the U.S. policy on Syria has primarily focused on offering the rebels nonlethal assistance and humanitarian aid.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who met with the rebels last month and has been a vocal critic of the president’s Syria policy said in a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: “We appreciate the President’s finding that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on several occasions. We also agree with the President that this fact must affect U.S. policy toward Syria. The President’s red line has been crossed. U.S. credibility is on the line. Now is not the time to merely take the next incremental step. Now is the time for more decisive actions.”
“A decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the President will take this urgently needed step” they added. Former President Bill Clinton this week, at a private event with McCain, also ratcheted up pressure for the White House to increase its support to the rebels.
However, Rhodes would not detail the type of military support the administration intends on providing. He said helping the opposition improve their effectiveness as a fighting force means helping with “nonlethal assistance” such as communications equipment and transportation. “These are things that allow them to cohere as a unit,” he said.
He added, meanwhile, that no decision has been made about enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. “A no-fly zone… would carry with it open-ended costs for the international community,” Rhodes said. “Furthermore, there’s not even a clear guarantee that it would dramatically improve the situation on the ground.”
Rhodes laid out the intelligence assessment that led to the president’s decision saying the U.S. intelligence community determined “that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”
Rhodes added that “the intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete.”
Although that is a small fraction of the more than 90,000 who have died in the civil war, Rhodes said “the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”
“We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons,” Rhodes continued. “We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”
The conflict in Syria has raged on since March 2011 when Assad began cracking down on protesters inspired by the Arab Spring. The war has fallen along ethnic lines, between the Sunni rebels and Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. Rhodes said today that the use of chemical weapons adds an element of urgency to the situation, as does the influx of foreign pro-Assad fighters from Hezbollah and Iran.
While Mr. Obama has said unequivocally that Assad must go, the administration has said it’s still aiming for his regime to engage with the opposition to reach a political settlement. In the absence of a political settlement, Rhodes said Syria would be left with “for all intents and purposes, a civil war” that Hezbollah and Iran would jump into. Syria’s position in the heart of the Middle East makes the scenario particularly unpredictable.
Rhodes further added that the end of the Assad regime should not have to necessitate the disillusionment in all elements of the state. “There is a future for those in the Assad regime who are willing to accept the end of Bashar Assad’s reign but are willing to work for a better future for Syria,” he said.
A Syrian rebel group’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda’s replacement for Osama bin Laden suggests that the terrorist group’s influence is not waning and that it may take a greater role in the Western-backed fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The pledge of allegiance by Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani to al-Qaeda leader Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri was coupled with an announcement by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, that it would work with al Nusra as well.
Lebanese Sheik Omar Bakri, a Salafist who says states must be governed by Muslim religious law, says al-Qaeda has assisted al Nusra for some time.
“They provided them early on with technical, military and financial support , especially when it came to setting up networks of foreign jihadis who were brought into Syria,” Bakri says. “There will certainly be greater coordination between the two groups.”
The United States, which supports the overthrow of Assad, designated al Nusra a terrorist entity in December. The Obama administration has said it wants to support only those insurgent groups that are not terrorist organizations.
Al Nusra and groups like it have seen some of the most significant victories against Syrian government forces in the course of the 2-year-old uprising in which Assad’s forces have killed about 80,000 people. Rebels not affiliated with al-Qaeda have pressed Washington for months to send weaponry that will allow them to match the heavy weapons of the Syrian army. They’ve urged the West to mount an air campaign against Assad’s mechanized forces.
President Obama refuses to provide any direct military aid. Foreign radical Islamists streaming into the fight from the Middle East and Europe are making headway with the Syrian population by providing services and gaining ground in battles.
Tamer Mouhieddine, spokesman for the Syrian Free Army, a force made up of Syrian soldiers who have defected, said the recent announcements would not change his group’s attitude toward al Nusra.
“The rebels in Syria have one common enemy – Bashar Assad – and they will collaborate with any faction allowing them to topple his regime,” he said.
He confirmed that al Nusra is generating loyalty in Aleppo, a region battling for months with Assad, by providing financial support as well as setting up charities.
Aaron Zelin at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington says al Nusra’s ability to provide security and basic needs such as bread and fuel to Syrian civilians, as well as to reopen shops and restart bus services, has won gratitude from people who would not usually adhere to its strict ideology.
Zelin says some Syrian people have criticized al Nusra for banning alcohol, forcing women to wear a full veil and whipping men who are seen with women in public.
“This illustrates the need for American leadership in the Syrian conflict, particularly with regard to helping non-Qaeda-aligned rebels contain the growth of (al Nusra) and similar groups,” he said. “Washington should also try to take advantage of cleavages within the rebellion and civilian population, since al Nusra is outside the mainstream and more concerned with establishing a transnational caliphate than maintaining the Syrian state.”
Groups such as the Islamic Liwaa al Tawhid, which collaborates with al Nusra on military operations, worried that Assad would use the announcement from al Nusra as evidence for his claim that he is fighting terrorists, not Syrian citizens who wish an end to his dictatorship, Mouhieddine said.
“We are willing to fight alongside any faction targeting the Assad regime, as long as it does not have a foreign agenda, which seems now the case” of al Nusra, he said.