White House to step up aid to Syria rebels, after US confirms Assad chemical use

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President Obama has decided to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale numerous times, the White House announced Thursday.

“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.

“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,” the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, the White House statement continued. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

The US assistance provided to the Syrian rebels “is going to be substantively different than what we were providing before our initial chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes told journalists in a press call Thursday evening.

While declining to provide a full inventory of the assistance the US might provide to the rebels, Rhodes said the U.S. aim “is to be responsive to the needs of the SMC on the ground…There will be an increase in support to both the political and military side.”

Among the types of assistance the US was looking to provide, in coordination with allies, Rhodes said, was aid to enhance the Syrian rebels’ cohesion and effectiveness. “Communications equipment, transport, … medical assistance” [such as ambulances] “relevant to their effectiveness…to allow them to cohere as a unit that can challenge the regime.” The US would also provide small arms and ammunition, and would consider supplying anti-tank weapons, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

Representatives of the US, UK and France are expected to meet SMC military commander Gen. Salim Idriss in Turkey on Saturday, wire reports said Thursday.

The US announcement was made during a week of intensive, high level White House consultations on Syria, including a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and visiting UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It also comes ahead of the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in the United Kingdom next week.

Notably, the United States has briefed Russia on its latest Syria chemical weapons assessment, Rhodes said in the call Thursday. It has also provided the information to the United Nations, which Rhodes said had been unable to get its Syria chemical weapons investigation team on the ground in Syria due to Assad’s obstruction.

The announcement came as the United Nations said Thursday that it assesses 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date.

“We’re at a tipping point” in Syria, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s former top Middle East diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.

Recent gains by Assad forces, backed by Hizbollah, on the ground have thrown plans for transition talks in Geneva into doubt.

“There can’t be any political solution on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room.”

Full White House statement below the jump:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

June 13, 2013

Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use

At the President’s direction, the United States Government has been closely monitoring the potential use of chemical weapons within Syria. Following the assessment made by our intelligence community in April, the President directed the intelligence community to seek credible and corroborated information to build on that assessment and establish the facts with some degree of certainty. Today, we are providing an updated version of our assessment to Congress and to the public.

The Syrian government’s refusal to grant access to the United Nations to investigate any and all credible allegations of chemical weapons use has prevented a comprehensive investigation as called for by the international community. The Assad regime could prove that its request for an investigation was not just a diversionary tactic by granting the UN fact finding mission immediate and unfettered access to conduct on-site investigations to help reveal the truth about chemical weapons use in Syria. While pushing for a UN investigation, the United States has also been working urgently with our partners and allies as well as individuals inside Syria, including the Syrian opposition, to procure, share, and evaluate information associated with reports of chemical weapons use so that we can establish the facts and determine what took place.

Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year. Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information. The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete. While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades. We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons. We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.

The body of information used to make this intelligence assessment includes reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location, and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent. Some open source reports from social media outlets from Syrian opposition groups and other media sources are consistent with the information we have obtained regarding chemical weapons use and exposure. The assessment is further supported by laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin. Each positive result indicates that an individual was exposed to sarin, but it does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination.

We are working with allies to present a credible, evidentiary case to share with the international community and the public. Since the creation of the UN fact finding mission, we have provided two briefings to Dr. Åke Sellström, the head of the mission. We will also be providing a letter to UN Secretary General Ban, calling the UN’s attention to our updated intelligence assessment and specific incidents of alleged chemical weapons use. We request that the UN mission include these incidents in its ongoing investigation and report, as appropriate, on its findings. We will present additional information and continue to update Dr. Sellström as new developments emerge.

The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States, as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons. Our 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. Our decision making has already been guided by the April intelligence assessment and by the regime’s escalation of horrific violence against its citizens. Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks. This effort is aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the SMC, and helping to coordinate the provision of assistance by the United States and other partners and allies. 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. These efforts will increase going forward.

The United States and the international community have a number of other legal, financial, diplomatic, and military responses available. We are prepared for all contingencies, and we will make decisions on our own timeline. Any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives, which include achieving a negotiated political settlement to establish an authority that can provide basic stability and administer state institutions; protecting the rights of all Syrians; securing unconventional and advanced conventional weapons; and countering terrorist activity.