After concluding that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the country’s insurgency, thus crossing a ‘red line,’ the Obama administration has decided to start sending arms to anti-Assad rebels for the first time, officials say.
An internal memorandum circulating within the Obama administration has assessed that chemical weapons, most likely the nerve gas sarin, were used multiple times in battle against the Syrian rebels.
The “intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” according to that memo, as cited by The New York Times.
President Obama has authorized to release of at least some US arms for Syria’s rebels as part of new military and political aid measures, according to a source who spoke with Reuters.
White House officials speculated over evidence that nerve gas had been used as of April, but that evidence is now being called “definitive” – with Congressional sources describing the conclusion as crossing the “red line” for US military intervention or backing as previously defined by the president.
“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition, that will involve providing direct support to the (Supreme Military Council), that includes military support,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.
“This is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing to the SMC than what we have provided before,” he adds.
Originally conceived as a pesticide, sarin was used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime to gas thousands of Kurds in the northern town of Halabja in 1988.
Sarin can be inhaled or absorbed through skin, and it kills by crippling the nervous system and paralyzing muscles around the lungs.
In addition to airborne release, the gas can also be used to contaminate food or water supplies. As a gas, it can linger in an area for up to six hours.
Sarin inhalation can cause death within a few minutes in high doses, and permanent harm includes damage to the lungs, eyes and central nervous system.
According to officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, the US military is currently considering a proposal for arming factions of the Syrian insurgency – as well as establishing a limited no-fly zone over the country to be enforced from nearby Jordanian territory.
That no-fly zone could stretch for up to 25 miles into Syrian territory, and would be set up in a bid to train and equip rebel forces and protect refugees, officials said.
A no-fly zone would not require the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries, according to the accounts cited in American media. The White House could alternatively authorize the arming and training of the Syrian opposition in Jordan without a no-fly zone.
Congress was being notified of the conclusions over chemical weapons use in the country on Thursday in classified documents. Findings were corroborated by evidence sent to the US by France, which along with the UK claimed that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.
“There is a growing body persuasive evidence showing that the regime used – and continues to use – chemical weapons, including sarin,” a spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said Thursday.
“The room for doubt continues to diminish. Assad must grant the UN investigation unrestricted access to investigate on the ground in Syria and establish the full facts,” he added.
In a conference call to reporters on Thursday, the White House said that the intelligence community estimates that as many as 150 people, or about 0.16 per cent (0.0016) of the 93,000 reported deaths in the Syrian conflict, could have been a result of chemical weapons used by pro-Assad forces.
The White House said during the same call that the US “will make decisions on our own timeline” regarding the next steps on Syria. President Obama will consult with G8 partners, including Russia, about Syria next week.
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham called on the US to provide “lethal assistance, especially ammunition & heavy weapons” to Syria’s rebels on Thursday.
“The President must rally an international coalition to take military actions to degrade Assad’s ability to use airpower and ballistic missiles and to move and resupply his forces around the battlefield by air,” said a joint statement by the pair.
As a UN probe was underway into allegations of chemical weapons use in May, lead investigator Carla Del Ponte said the findings showed that rebels were behind at least one chemical weapons attack. “This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” Del Ponte told Swiss TV.
Abayomi Azikiwe, international affairs expert and journalist, says that US claims will be used to justify intervention at a time when the rebels are threatened with defeat on the battlefield.
“Based upon the developments that have been taking place in Syria over the last two weeks, in regard to the removal of rebels from various parts of the country, and also the overall international situation — which is very disadvantageous to US or NATO direct intervention in Syria –I believe that this being utilized to provide a rationale and justification for the escalation of military, political as well as diplomatic pressure against the Syrian government,” he adds.
Author and historian Gerald Horne said that Washington’s allegations are in “flagrant contradiction” with an assessment from the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, and may only serve to escalate the conflict.
“They’re under enormous pressure from former US President Bill Clinton, who just came out with a statement criticizing the Obama administration for not intervening more deeply in the Syrian morass,” Horne said. “Mr. Obama’s former competitor, Senator John McCain of Arizona, just took to the floor of the United States Senate saying that arming the rebels is not enough, presumably calling for air strikes to create a no-fly zone. It seems to me this is a very dangerous and ominous moment, particularly as Sunni clerics have just met in Cairo, Egypt and called for a holy war against the Assad regime. Instead of trying to calm things down, it seems to me the Obama administration is about to throw gas on the flames.”