After determining that President Bashir al Assad’s regime crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons, the Obama administration has decided to increase aid to Syrian rebels who have supported al Qaeda’s affiliate in the past. The US is also considering establishing a no-fly zone along the Jordanian border.
The announcement that aid, including unspecified military support, would be increased to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and its military command, the Supreme Military Council, was made yesterday by Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
“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 US,” Rhodes said, according to the BBC.
“Our intelligence community now has a high confidence assessment that chemical weapons have been used on a small scale by the Assad regime in Syria. The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” he continued. An estimated 100 to 150 people are thought to have been killed in chemical attacks, which are believed to have included the use of the deadly nerve gas sarin.
The US is “comfortable” supporting Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Council, which includes the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a political organization that opposes the Assad government.
Rhodes claimed that providing military aid to the Supreme Military Council and the Syrian Opposition Coalition will allow the West to help “isolate” the Al Nusrah Front and other jihadist groups that are prevalent on the Syrian battlefield, despite the fact that both the Council and the Coalition have backed jihadist groups in Syria.
“It’s been important to work through them while aiming to isolate some of the more extremist elements of the opposition, such as Al Nusrah,” he said.
Additionally, unnamed diplomats have indicated that the US may establish a no-fly zone along the border with Jordan, Reuters reported.
Top Syrian rebel leaders have supported the Al Nusrah Front
In the past, senior leaders in both the Supreme Military Council and the Syrian Opposition Coalition have professed support for the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Elements of the Free Syrian Army, which falls under the command of the Supreme Military Council, fight alongside and often under the command of the Al Nusrah Front, which was estimated by the US government at the beginning of this year to have over 10,000 fighters. More than 3,000 fighters from the Free Syrian Army are estimated to have defected to the Al Nusrah Front as of mid-May.
Colonel Riyad al Assad, the founder of the Free Syrian Army and one of its top commanders, has welcomed the Al Nusrah Front on the battlefield and has described the group as “our brothers in Islam.” Riyad made the statements in an undated video that was uploaded on YouTube in March.
“We have offered martyrs and other things and, accordingly, nobody should blame us for this matter,” he said. “The Al Nusrah Front has proved that it is proficient in fighting and has treated the people very nicely.”
Riyad then said that the Al Nusrah Front “thus far have not done anything wrong to anybody,” disregarding the facts that the group has executed suicide attacks that have killed civilians and enforces a harsh form of sharia, or Islamic law, in areas under its control.
“They might have some ideological thoughts over which we differ, but the majority of the people are looking with admiration toward the Al Nusrah Front,” he continued.
Ahmed Moaz al Khatib, the former president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition who resigned in April, also expressed support for the Al Nusrah Front. Just one day after the US added the Al Nusrah Front to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, al Khatib urged the US to drop the designation, citing “ideological and political differences.”
“The decision to blacklist one of the groups fighting the regime as a terrorist organization must be re-examined,” al Khatib said.
“We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal: to overthrow the criminal regime” of President Bashar al-Assad, al Khatib continued.
Syrian rebels are seeking heavy weapons, including shoulder-fired surface to air missles and antitank missiles, to fight the Syrian military.
Idris, the head of the Syrian Military Council, recently asked the US to supply “200 Russian-made Konkurs antitank missiles and 100 shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons … 300,000 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, 100,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, 50,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition and high resolution satellite imagery,” to aid in the defense of the city of Aleppo, The Wall Street Journal reported on June 11.
The Al Nusrah Front, with the support of other Syrian rebel groups, has imposed sharia, or Islamic law, in Aleppo. On June 9, Islamists in Aleppo publicly executed a 15-year-old boy for supposedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed.