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U.S. to Provide Syrian Rebels Military Support

U.S. to Provide Syrian Rebels Military Support

By Alexis Simendinger - June 14, 2013

The United States is confident the brutal regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people multiple times “in the last year,” contributing to President Obama’s latest decision to dispatch direct military support to the rebels while continuing to pursue a negotiated political settlement in consultation with allies, the United Nations and Congress, the White House announced Thursday evening.

A White House official declined to confirm that Obama explicitly authorized sending U.S. arms to the rebels, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Sen. John McCain commended the president from the Senate floor Thursday evening for providing opposition forces “with weapons and other assistance.” Moments later he returned to the floor to say he spoke either prematurely or in error.

In a later written statement, McCain joined Sen. Lindsey Graham in saying that a “decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the president will take this urgently needed step. But providing arms alone is not sufficient.”

Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters a decision about a proposed no-fly zone over Syria had not been made, and he suggested the president was not convinced such an option -- advocated by McCain and others -- would “dramatically improve” conditions on the ground. Sending U.S. military forces into Syria is not under consideration, Rhodes reiterated.

While the president was speaking in the East Room at an event for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the White House National Security Council organized a hastily scheduled conference call with reporters to describe the intelligence community’s conclusion that chemical agents, including the nerve agent sarin, had been used by the Assad regime to kill an estimated 100 to 150 people in addition to the more than 90,000 Syrians killed by conventional weapons.

The administration initially confirmed evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria in April, which increased pressure on Obama, who had said the use or movement of chemical stockpiles in the embattled nation would be a “red line” that would alter his policy calculus.

Obama’s announcement Thursday came a day after Politico reported that former President Bill Clinton told a New York audience that his experiences in Rwanda (where the U.S. did not intervene to prevent genocide) and the Balkans (where it did) taught him that “sometimes it’s best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t over-commit.”

Clinton appeared at an event alongside McCain and said he agreed with the Arizona senator that Obama should be more forceful in his approach to Syria. The discussion was closed to the media, but Politico obtained an audio recording of the former president’s remarks.

The Assad regime’s confirmed use of weapons of mass destruction, plus the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran against rebels in what is now a two-year-old civil war, raises the stakes in the United Nations and among heads of state, including Obama, who will meet next week in the United Kingdom at the annual G-8 summit.

Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is embraced by the U.N. General Assembly and outlaws the manufacture, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad backer and arms supplier, is expected to attend the gathering of world leaders. The U.S. and its allies plan to argue it is in Russia’s interest to “help restore a stable situation in Syria” -- without Assad, Rhodes said.

The president is determined to make decisions about U.S. involvement in Syria “on our own timetable,” as well as in coordination with international partners and in consultation with Congress, Rhodes added.

The international community and regional partners are seeking Assad’s ouster and stable governance in Syria. Those goals will continue to be pursued through diplomatic channels, but Obama concluded it is now in America’s interest to provide “additional assistance” to the Syrian rebels to help them improve “their effectiveness as a fighting force” and upgrade their “cohesion” and ties to the political opposition through more non-lethal aid, such as communications and transportation equipment, medical supplies and “significant humanitarian assistance,” Rhodes said.

The United States has committed $515 million for humanitarian aid for the Syrian people.

Under questioning, Rhodes repeatedly declined to detail the types of direct military support the president approved, or to confirm that arming moderate rebel forces -- a step Obama has resisted to this point -- meets the White House description of an expanded “scope and scale of assistance” envisioned by Obama.

After pushing to lift an arms embargo within the European Union, France and Britain are now technically able to arm the Syrian opposition forces. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia already provide some weapons to the rebels.

In a statement accompanying the call, Rhodes wrote that the U.S. 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. . . .

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC [Supreme Military Council]. These efforts will increase going forward.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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