WASHINGTON — The U.S. will send military support to Syrian rebels after finding the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on the opposition “multiple times,” the White House said Thursday, escalating involvement in a civil war in which President Barack Obama has resisted military involvement.
The U.S. intelligence community determined after two months of investigation that it has “high confidence” that President Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, at least four times, said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. At least 100 to 150 people are believed to have been killed, he said, although the casualty data is incomplete.
Though the attacks make up only a small part of what Rhodes called the “catastrophic loss of life in Syria” – an estimated 90,000 have died in the last two years – he said the use of chemical weapons “violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”
The move also crosses Obama’s “red line,” Rhodes said, and the president has decided to send “military support” to the rebel Supreme Military Council – though Rhodes wouldn’t give any specifics about what type of military support would be dispatched.
The U.S. already provides nonlethal materials such as body armor, food and night-vision goggles, but Rhodes said the new support would be “different in both scope and scale, in terms of what we are providing, than what we have provided before.”
Rhodes said the administration hasn’t ruled anything out, except putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.
He said Obama made the decision “to provide additional types of support” to the military group, aimed at strengthening its effectiveness. “He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus and it has,” Rhodes said.
Republicans, who have urged Obama to more aggressively intervene, welcomed the U.S. finding. They warned, however, that U.S. credibility is now on the line and that further intervention may be required.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., noted that Obama called for Assad to step down two years ago and issued the red line threat a year ago. He called it “increasingly clear the president does not have a coherent plan to manage this growing strategic catastrophe.”
He called on Obama to explain to Congress and the American public his plan for bringing the conflict to an end.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., urged Obama in a joint statement to provide ammunition and heavy weapons to the opposition forces, as well to convince an international coalition to take military action such as a no-fly zone to restrict Assad’s ability to use airpower and ballistic missiles.
“We cannot afford to delay any longer,” they said. “We must take more decisive actions now to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria.”
Rhodes suggested the administration was unlikely to embrace a no-fly zone, as McCain has championed. He said such a maneuver would be hugely expensive and “the notion you can solve deeply rooted challenges on the ground from the air are not immediately apparent.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution, called the idea of arming rebels “an incomplete policy, not necessarily wise unless you think of how to stitch together a new government down the road.”
In a recent report for Brookings, O’Hanlon recommended consideration of what he calls “the Bosnia option,” a mix of military support, direct aid (such as airstrikes) coupled with a diplomatic push for a peaceful, and acceptable, resolution.
Rhodes repeatedly referred to the Supreme Military Council as “the military option” on the ground – an exaggeration when in fact the council controls only a fraction of the rebel fighters. The most effective rebels – Islamist militants such as the Nusra Front – don’t heed the council’s directives. The council’s own leader, defected Gen. Salim Idriss, told McClatchy last month that it was difficult to unify the fighters and that his men suffered from a lack of ammunition and training.
Rhodes also said there would be stepped-up assistance to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a fragmented, fragile and mostly toothless body that’s in such disarray that U.S. officials told McClatchy they were considering redirecting funds that had been allotted for it. For months, the coalition has been plagued by infighting and lack of leadership, leaving the Obama administration with no real civilian opposition partner.
Rhodes said the administration has shared its evidence of chemical weapons use with Russia, one of Syria’s key allies, and that Obama will make a case for isolating Syria at the upcoming meeting in Ireland of the world’s largest economies.
Richard Guthrie, formerly project leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the evidence for chemical weapons appears to come from the presence of telltale metabolites in urine samples. He said this “is indeed suggestive of exposure of an individual to sarin.”
But, he added, “an estimated 100 to 150 fatalities would indicate very small-scale use. It is hard to understand what the Assad regime would have been envisaging in such a use. The evidence has been mounting of exposure to poisons, but it has been hard to identify clear evidence for specific locations and specific materials.”
The administration in April acknowledged for the first time that the United States had received some evidence, with varying degrees of confidence, that Assad had used chemical weapons on a small scale.
But Obama has resisted greater military involvement in Syria and warned as recently as last month that the U.S. didn’t have enough evidence to determine that Syria had crossed his red line.
“I want to make sure we are acting deliberately,” he said at a press conference May 7 with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The White House has been under some pressure from its allies, especially the French and Israelis, who had each issued strong confirmations that chemical weapons had been used. Independent experts had voiced concern about the type of evidence at the basis of such assessments.
Rhodes said U.S. intelligence agents had been working urgently with other countries, as well as the Syrian opposition, to establish with some certainty that the chemical weapons had been used. He said the evidence is that the chemical weapons were used on a “small scale” against the opposition “multiple times” – including as recently as May 23 in an attack in the eastern part of Damascus.
He said the intelligence community has a high degree of confidence in the findings, “given multiple independent streams of information.”
And Rhodes said the U.S. believes the regime maintains control of the weapons and has “no reliable, corroborated reporting” to indicate that the opposition has either acquired or used chemical weapons.
Rhodes said the U.S. will provide its intelligence assessment to the United Nations, which has also been investigating the use of chemical weapons, though the Syrian government has refused to grant it access.
Matthew Schofield and Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed.