US to Increase Military Aid to Syrian Rebels, in Response to Chemical Weapons Use

The United States will be increasing the “scope and scale” of its help to the main opposition group fighting in Syria against the country’s regime, based on recent assessments that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on several occasions in the last two months against the rebels and others. After a “confident” assessment made by US intelligence in April, President Obama has decided to increase assistance to the military and political arm of the Free Syrian Army, the White House announced today.

Sellstrom and Ban Ki-moon
Ake Sellstrom, who leads the UN team investigating chemical weapons use in Syria, with Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general.

The United Nations recently created a chemical weapons fact-finding mission, led by a Swedish scientist, Ake Sellstrom, to conduct an investigation in Syria to assess whether chemical weapons had been used either by the government or any of the opposition parties. But the government of Bashar al-Assad has refused the UN team unfettered access, thus keeping the team from on-site investigation. So the US made its own assessment, finding that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, including sarin, on a small scale many times in April and May in the Aleppo, Damascus and Homs areas.

In the announcement, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said that 100 to 150 people died so far from the chemical weapons use, although data is incomplete. (Today, the UN also announced that the death toll in the 25-month Syrian conflict has climbed to nearly 93,000.) Rhodes said that the use of chemical weapons violated international norms.

Because Obama said last summer that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would also cross a “red line,” the White House announcement indicates that its response is to increase direct assistance to the opposition beyond humanitarian aid and technical assistance, like communication links. Yet Rhodes would not provide details on the nature of the assistance except to say it was “for direct military purposes on the ground.” He added that there was no proof that the opposition has used chemical weapons.

The American assessment will be shared with the UN team, which has already received verification of chemical weapons use in Syria from Britain and France. The US is also sending a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about its findings and will share the information with Congress and its “friends and allies,” particularly such countries as Britain and France in Europe and Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. Rhodes said the US would ask the UN and US Congress to consider the next steps and that Russia, Syria’s ally, has been notified of the findings. Rhodes reiterated that a political solution was still viable, regardless of the new help the US is ready to give to the Free Syrian Army.

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