WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Monday cleared the way for the U.S. to send chemical weapons-related assistance to the Syrian opposition, as well as international organizations working inside the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
The move comes nearly a month after a deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus that raised the specter of a U.S. military strike and resulted in a diplomatic deal aimed at stripping Syria of its stockpiles of deadly gases. While the White House says the international response should deter future attacks, the authorization of chemical weapons-related assistance signaled that the U.S. was at least preparing for the possibility that the deadly gases might be used again.
The White House said the non-lethal assistance could fall into three categories:
- Chemical weapons-related "personal protective" equipment to international organizations working in Syria, including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
- Medical assistance to strengthen local Syrian health care providers' ability to prepare for and respond to the use of chemical weapons
- Defensive chemical weapons training and protective equipment to vetted members of the Syrian opposition to protect against the use of deadly gases
A senior Obama administration official said the assistance and training would not give the Syrian opposition the ability to prepare, deploy or move the chemical weapons stockpiles. The U.S. says it believes Syrian President Bashar Assad's government retains control of the deadly gases.
The U.S. had already begun making plans to send the chemical weapons-related assistance to Syria before the Aug. 21 attack, said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the aid by name and insisted on anonymity.
A United Nations report released Monday found evidence that sarin gas was used on a "relatively large scale" during last month's attack. The U.N. report did not address who carried out the attack, though the U.S. and dozens of other countries have pinned the blame on Assad's regime.
Obama, who has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons would cross his "red line," appeared ready to launch a U.S. military strike against Syria in response to the sarin attack. But he reversed course and instead decided to seek approval Congress, where there is widespread opposition to a strike.
Before lawmakers took any votes, an ambitious agreement emerged between the U.S. and Russia calling for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons program within a week. All components of Syria's chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
Russia has long been one of Assad's strongest military and economic backers.