The United States will provide direct “military support” to the Syrian rebels following U.S. intelligence conclusions that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons on a “small scale” in the civil war that has claimed more than 90,000 lives, White House officials said Thursday.
“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security Council adviser at the White House. Rhodes said he could not go “through the inventory” of types of military aid that the U.S. will send to the rebel Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, but stressed that the support will be “substantially different” than the humanitarian assistance the U.S. has been providing.
Rhodes also stressed that Obama has yet to sign off on imposing a no-fly zone over Syria to ground Assad’s air forces, as has been suggested by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others.
“We have not made a decision to pursue a military operation such as a no-fly zone,” Rhodes said in a late-afternoon conference call. He suggested that Obama will discuss a no-fly zone with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week when the leaders are in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to attend the Group of Eight, or G-8, meeting of the world’s economic powers.
“A political settlement is still the preferable outcome,” Rhodes said, but neither side in the civil war has shown much interest in negotiating. Even if talks should begin, “Bashar Assad can’t be part of the future of Syria,” he said.
Obama reversed course on his long-standing resistance to arming the rebels after the CIA concluded that chemical weapons had been used several times against the rebels in recent months, and because recent gains on the ground by Assad’s forces were made with the support of Hezbollah fighters and Iran, Rhodes said.
The White House has maintained throughout the Syrian crisis that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for Obama in deciding on U.S. involvement in the war. In April, the U.S. and several allies judged that chemical weapons likely had been used, but the U.S. said the proof was not definitive.
That has since changed, Rhodes said in a statement.
“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses 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,” he said.
“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information,” the statement said. “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.”
The Assad regime had blamed the rebels for using chemical weapons, but Rhodes said there is “no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly warned of the risk of arming rebel forces that include Islamist extremist groups with alleged ties to al-Qaida.
But Rhodes said the U.S. believes it has found a reliable and moderate ally in former Syrian Army Gen. Selim Idriss, head of the SMC, and would direct military support to groups in his control.
Obama had come under increasing criticism for his failure to act in arming the rebels. On Tuesday night, former President Bill Clinton said Obama risked being labeled a “wuss” for keeping the U.S. on the sidelines.
"Some people say, 'OK, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!' I think that's a big mistake," Clinton said during a Tuesday event on behalf of the McCain Institute for International Leadership in New York City.
"I agree with you about this," Clinton told Sen. McCain, who was in the audience, according to Politico, which obtained a tape of the event. "Sometimes, it's just best to get caught trying, as long as you don't over-commit -- like, as long as you don't make an improvident commitment."
McCain later Thursday again pressed the case for a no-fly zone.
“This is a regional conflict,” McCain told CNN. “Jordan is destabilized, Lebanon is about to erupt into sectarian violence, jihadists are falling in from all over the Middle East.”
“No, we don’t want boots on the ground and, yes, we should be able to establish a no-fly zone relatively easily,” McCain said.