The United States will begin providing military aid to rebels in Syria after intelligence agencies determined that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, the White House said Thursday. However, the White House did not specify exactly what kind of support would be provided:
“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Rhodes said U.S. intelligence had determined with “high certainty” that Syrian government forces have “used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” ¶ Intelligence agencies estimate that 100 to 150 people have died as a result of chemical weapons use, he said. ¶ Rhodes did not detail what he called the expanded military support, but it is expected initially to consist of light arms and ammunition. He said the shipments would be “responsive to the needs” expressed by the rebel command. ¶ Obama has “not made any decision” to pursue a military option such as a no-fly zone and has ruled out the deployment of U.S. ground troops, Rhodes said. ¶ Syria’s outgunned rebels have issued urgent appeals this week for antitank and antiaircraft weaponry to counter a government offensive that is backed by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian militia forces.
Syrian rebels responded to the U.S. announcement with skepticism, suggesting that if the shipment was of small arms, it would be too little, too late:
U.S. officials are expected to meet with Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, over the next two days to discuss details of military assistance that Washington can provide. Rebel leaders said Idriss will urge the U.S. officials to offer a wider range of support. ¶ “We welcome the decision, but it is a late step. And if they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference?” said Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syria Army. “They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone.”
Max Fisher agrees that small arms are unlikely to have a substantial effect:
It’s difficult to imagine these changes dramatically altering the current course of the war, which has seen Assad’s forces gaining with assistance from Iran and Hezbollah. ¶ So the obvious question is whether this news will lead to any more changes. Given Obama’s clear skepticism about the merits of greater U.S. involvement and his administration’s concerns about the risks, it’s hard to foresee him changing course for the sake of his own, self-imposed red line. . .
What seems especially unlikely is that the Obama administration will bow to critics who charge that Obama must intervene in Syria or he risks losing “international credibility” by not responding with sufficient force to Syria’s crossing of his red line. ¶ Expect to hear warnings on cable TV that “the mullahs are watching.” That charge is not wholly without merit, but it’s worth noting, as Fareed Zakaria recently did, that the Reagan administration pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon rather than risk involvement in that country’s civil war. At the time, critics charged that he was tarnishing American credibility and that “the Soviets are watching.” As it turned out, Reagan’s decision was largely vindicated and American credibility survived.
There have been 93,000 confirmed deaths in the Syrian conflict, according to a U.N. report issued this week.