US Officials Start Talks on Arming Syria's Rebels
June 14, 2013
Aamer Madhani, Jim Michaels and Tom Vanden Brook / USA TODAY & Bradley Klapper / Associated Press
The Obama administration has announced that it has determined that the Syrian government has deployed chemical weapons against opposition groups, crossing what President Obama had called a "red line" and prompting him to provide direct military aid to the Syrian opposition groups for the first time. This decision ignores the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian rebels and numerous civilian massacres committed by members of the anti-government forces.
Source: Obama Approves Arming Syrian Rebels
Aamer Madhani, Jim Michaels and Tom Vanden Brook / USA TODAY
WASHINGTON, DC (June 13, 2013) -- The Obama administration announced Thursday that it has determined that the Syrian government has deployed chemical weapons against opposition groups, crossing what President Obama had called a "red line" and prompting him to provide direct military aid to the Syrian opposition groups for the first time.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that the president has decided to step up "military support" to the main opposition group, the Supreme Military Council, to bolster its effectiveness, but declined to "inventory" what equipment would be provided.
But a government official knowledgeable about the plans confirmed to USA TODAY that the new assistance would include arming the rebels. The official was not authorized to speak and did so on condition of anonymity.
The announcement comes ahead of next week's Group of Eight Summit in Northern Ireland, where the conflict in Syria is expected to be a focal point of conversation. Russia, one of the G-8 member countries, has continued to back the Bashar Assad regime despite pleas from the United States and international community to cease.
The White House has also expressed concerns that the situation is getting more dire in Syria as Hezbollah and Iran have stepped up their involvement in the conflict in support of Assad.
"There is an urgency to the situation," Rhodes said. "There has been an urgency to the situation for two years. It's particularly urgent right now in terms of the situation on the ground, in some respect, because we have seen Hezbollah and Iran increase their own involvement."
The White House notified lawmakers on Thursday that it had positively determined chemical weapons were used before announcing the findings to the press.
Obama acknowledged in April that chemical weapons likely had been deployed, but they needed further confirmation before taking action. Obama had called the potential use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad a "red line" that would spur further action by the US
The president "has said the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus and it has," Rhodes said.
The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date, a small fraction of the more than 90,000 that have been killed in the 2-year-old civil war. The US assessment is based on laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals that revealed exposure to sarin.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf Arab states are already providing arms and ammunition to rebel groups. What is lacking is cohesion and organization. But Assad's forces have made recent headway against the rebels, driving them from a strategic city near the border of Lebanon.
"You need to provide the right kind of arms," said Brian Rogers, a spokesman for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "What they really need is anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons."
One Democrat even suggested taking stronger action. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the foreign relations committee, recommended the US launch cruise missile attacks to ground Assad's Air Force. Such a move would help carve out a "safe zone" for rebels in northern Syria that could be protected by Patriot anti-missile batteries that are already located in neighboring Turkey, he said..
"We have to do something substantial now," Casey said.
Rhodes said that the president has not made any decisions to implement a no-fly zone, as he did in Libya in as part of an international effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi. But Rhodes underscored that White House officials believe the most effective action they can take to improve the situation on the ground is to strengthen the opposition.
"A no-fly zone ... would carry with it great and open-ended costs for the United States and the international community," Rhodes said. "It would be far more complex to undertake that effort in Syria than it was in Libya. Furthermore, there's not a clear guarantee that it would dramatically improve the situation on the ground."
Several lawmakers applauded the president for acknowledging the use of chemical weapons, but called on him to take more significant action to topple Assad.
"I thank the president for acknowledging that Syrians are using chemical weapons," McCain said. "Just to provide additional weapons to the Syrian National Army is not enough. We have got to change the equation on the battleground."
"It is in our national security interest to see that the war in Syria ends and Assad is displaced," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "It can be done, and it should be done, and it is in our interest to do it."
Earlier on Thursday, Politico reported that former president Bill Clinton agreed with McCain that Obama should be more forceful in his support of the Syrian rebels.
"Some people say, 'OK, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!' I think that's a big mistake," Clinton said during a Tuesday event on behalf of the McCain Institute for International Leadership in New York City.
"I agree with you about this," Clinton told McCain. "Sometimes it's just best to get caught trying, as long as you don't over-commit -- like, as long as you don't make an improvident commitment."
Contributing: Susan Davis and Catalina Camia
US Officials Start Talks on Arming Syria's Rebels
Bradley Klapper / Associated Press
WASHINGTON, DC (June 11, 2013) -- The Obama administration began discussing Monday whether the Assad regime's rapid military advance across the heart of Syria necessitates a drastic US response, with officials saying a decision on arming beleaguered rebels could happen later this week.
Top aides from the State and Defense Departments, the CIA and other agencies were gathering for a "deputies meeting" at the White House on Monday afternoon. There, they'll seek to lay the groundwork for a meeting that President Barack Obama will hold with his senior national security staff, planned for Wednesday, said US officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the closed-doors talks and demanded anonymity.
Moved by the Syrian regime's rapid advance, officials say the administration could approve lethal aid for the rebels in the coming days. The president and his advisers also will weigh the merits of a less likely move to send in US airpower to enforce a no-fly zone over the civil war-wracked nation, officials said.
The White House meetings are taking place as Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces are apparently poised for an attack on the key city of Homs, which could cut off Syria's armed opposition from the south of the country. As many as 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are now in Syria, officials believe, helping the regime press on with its campaign after capturing the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week.
Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face devastating and irreversible losses without greater support.
Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip Monday to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in White House discussions, officials said. He may travel to the region later in the week.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that internal administration discussions were focused on "helping the Syrian opposition serve the essential needs of the Syrian people and hasten a political transition."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama's Syria policy was under constant review to find "what policy tools will help achieve our goal, which is a transition in Syria to a post-Assad government that respects the rights of the Syrian people and that gives that country a chance for a better future, a democratic future and an economically prosperous future."
While nothing has been concretely decided, US officials said Obama was leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units. The US has spoken of possibly arming the opposition in recent months but has hesitated because it doesn't want groups that are linked to al-Qaida and other extremists fighting alongside the anti-Assad militias to end up with the weapons.
Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require US military troops on the ground. Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime's jets, gunships and other aerial assets are being more seriously debated, officials said, but they cautioned that a no-fly zone or any other action involving US military deployments in Syria were far less likely right now. The US can provide weapons without sending soldiers into Syria, either by sending materiel to rebels in neighboring Turkey and Jordan or working with regional allies.
The president also has declared chemical weapons use by the Assad regime a "red line" for more forceful US action. American allies including France and Britain have say they've determined with near certitude that Syrian forces have used low levels of sarin in several attacks, but the administration is still studying the evidence.
The US officials said responses that will be mulled over in this week's meetings concern the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria, independent of final confirmation of possible chemical weapons use.
US lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, are clamoring for greater action.
In a letter to Obama on Monday, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, urged the president to start providing lethal aid as soon as possible to "shift momentum away from radical Islamist groups, the Assad regime and its militias toward more moderate elements."
But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of House Intelligence committee, said the US shouldn't get drawn into the conflict. "We have a poor track record of intervening in sectarian civil wars," he said. "We need to be mindful of limitations in our ability to shape the outcome and very resistant to being pulled in in a way that we cannot later extricate ourselves very easily."
Any intervention could have wide-reaching ramifications for the United States and the region. It would bring the US closer to a conflict that has killed almost 80,000 people since Assad cracked down on protesters inspired by the Arab Spring in March 2011 and sparked a war that has since been increasingly defined by interethnic clashes between the Sunni-led rebellion and Assad's Alawite-dominated regime.
And it would essentially pit the United States alongside regional allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in a proxy war against Iran, which is providing much of the materiel to the Syrian government's counterinsurgency and, through Hezbollah, more and more of the manpower.
Syria's precarious position in the heart of the Middle East makes the conflict extremely unpredictable. Lebanon, across the western border, suffered its own brutal civil war in the 1970s and the 1980s and is already experiencing increased interethnic tensions.
Iraq, to Syria's east, is mired in worsening violence. And Israel to the southwest has seen shots fired across the contested Golan Heights and has been forced to strike what it claimed were advanced weapons convoys heading to Hezbollah, with whom it went to war with in 2006.
At the same time, it's unclear how Washington could fundamentally change the trajectory of a conflict that has increasingly tilted toward Assad in recent months without providing weapons to the opposition forces or getting involved itself.
If the regime seizes control of Homs, it would clear a path for it from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast and firm up its grip on much of the country.
Associated Press writers Mathew Lee and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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