In a statement by Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes on Thursday, June 13th, the Obama administration announced that it is now certain that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including Sarin, “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year”.
The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war is a huge concern for the U.S. and the west. In addition to the enormous humanitarian concern, the presence of chemical weapons on the battle field increases the likelihood of these weapons falling into the hands of the Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra Brigade and other untrustworthy fighting groups that could use these weapons in proximity to innocent Syrian populations or in terrorist strikes against the west.
Rhodes’ statement, in keeping with the President’s previously issued red line, the U.S. will now form and enact a plan to supply lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Here is the quote that describes the expansion of aid:
Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks. This effort is aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the SMC, and helping to coordinate the provision of assistance by the United States and other partners and allies. Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC. These efforts will increase going forward.
No specific weapons, ammunition, or action is named, since the President has yet to confer with Congress, but the statement does mention that the U.S. has increased already ongoing non-lethal aid, effective immediately.
In an on-the-record conference call later on Thursday, Mr. Rhodes was asked repeatedly for details on future military aid. He avoided stating outright that the President has decided to arm the rebels, but, when asked, answered in the affirmative that a decision has been made on the issue of arming the rebels (it is implied, but not explicit, that the decision was to go ahead). On a no-fly zone, Mr. Rhodes suggested that, though contingencies for many scenarios have been drawn up, the administration’s preference is to affect the conflict by strengthening the rebels, rather than by direct involvement.
Initial reactions to the announcement have been mixed. Unsurprisingly, Russia has condemned the announcement, objecting that the evidence is unconvincing, while some in the press feel that this move is coming too late, or has been made only for cynical reasons. Naturally, reactions will unfold more as specifics come out over the next several days and the world will watch eagerly.