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:

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US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'


The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Continue reading

Line of the day

Intrigued by this line, from the New York Times book review Sunday of David Sanger’s recent book on Obama’s national security policy, Confront and Conceal:

On Iran, Obama initially tried a three-pronged approach of engagement, sanctions and covert action. Engagement died, according to Sanger, when American intelligence, intercepting Ayatollah Khamenei’s message traffic, realized he had no intention of giving up his option of building nuclear weaponry.

This would partly explain, and be consistent with, US intelligence officials’ assessment that they do not believe the Supreme Leader has made a decision yet about whether to make a nuclear weapon, but is keeping the option open.

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress in January: Continue reading