In a sharp escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s bloody civil war, the White House announced late Thursday that it will provide military aid to rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad after confirming that his government used chemical weapons against the opposition.
Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call that President Barack Obama had heard pleas from Syria’s rebel Supreme Military Council (SMC) for more help. “Our aim is to be responsive,” Rhodes said, underlining that the new assistance would have “direct military purposes.”
Rhodes brushed aside repeated questions about whether this meant Washington would now start providing weapons to the rebels, insisting he could not give an “inventory” of the aid. But while he never explicitly confirmed that Obama had decided to to arm the opposition, he left little doubt about Washington’s new course of action.
“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition. That will involve providing direct support to the SMC. That includes military support. I cannot detail for you all of the types of that support for a variety of reasons,” Rhodes said. The assistance is “aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the SMC on the ground.”
Obama reached the decision after America’s intelligence community concluded 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,” Rhodes said. Those attacks killed at least 100-150 people, he added. Rhodes said Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on March 19, April 13, May 14 and May 23.
The confirmation—and a new United Nations study that raised the death toll from Syria’s bloody civil war to nearly 93,000—ramped up pressure on Obama to escalate American involvement in the conflict. The president has been weighing whether to arm the opposition, help create safe areas for refugees, or impose “no-fly zones” inside Syria enforced by American-led forces. Obama last year called the confirmed use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would make him reconsider whether to arm the rebels, but he later hedged that statement.