President Obama’s top national security aides met at the White House on Wednesday to air options for expanding aid to the rebels after a disastrous battlefield setback last week. Neither Kerry nor White House press secretary Jay Carney would discuss the outcome, but both blamed the widening violence on Syrian President Bashar al-
The “choice of weapons that he has engaged in across the board challenge anybody’s values and standards of human behavior. And we’re going to have to make judgments for ourselves about how we can help the opposition to be able to deal with that,” Kerry said.
That was partly a reference to the British and French contention that they have evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons. Obama has repeatedly said that such a move would be a “red line” triggering U.S. action. France sent its dossier of evidence to Washington a week ago, but the State Department said Wednesday that the United States is not ready to say whether it agrees with the French findings.
As the Syrian conflict enters its third year, it has become increasingly divided along sectarian lines, pitting a largely Sunni opposition against Shiites and Alawites, members of a Shiite-
affiliated sect to which Assad belongs. That shift was evident in the battle for the border town of Qusair, where militants from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah led the offensive alongside Assad’s troops.
On Tuesday, about 60 civilians and pro-government fighters were killed when rebels stormed a largely Shiite village in eastern Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Videos released by the activist group showed rebels boasting of burning the houses of “rejectionists,” a derogatory term for Shiites.
The United Nations on Thursday updated its estimate of how many people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began, increasing the death toll from 80,000 to 92,901.. U.N. officials added that the true number could be considerably higher. Kerry has recently said that the death toll could be more than 100,000. The conflict, which began as an uprising inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions, has become an increasingly sectarian civil war that is drawing in other Middle East powers.
Carney played down the sense that emergency talks this week will lead to a quick decision on the Obama administration’s next step.
Obama’s options have always been few and poor in Syria, and any intervention would be a gamble. There is no assurance that U.S. military help would turn the tide for the rebels or drive Assad to the bargaining table in earnest; it might only invite a longer fight that pits the United States directly against Hezbollah and Iran.