The Syrian government used chemical weapons against its opponents, the Obama administration said Thursday, acknowledging that President Bashar Assad’s regime has crossed the “red line” President Obama laid down for U.S. action.
Putting American boots on the ground in Syria still isn’t an option, but White House officials now say the U.S. will provide other types of “military support” possibly including communications equipment, medical supplies and potentially training for Syrian rebel forces.
“The president has made his decision “¦ we’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory” of what the U.S. and its allies will provide Syrian opposition forces, said Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
According to new U.S. intelligence assessments, Mr. Assad has deployed sarin gas and other agents against Syrian rebels “multiple times in the past year,” with at least 100 deaths resulting directly from those weapons, Mr. Rhodes told reporters.
He said that there is “a range of options” open to the administration. The first step will be additional assistance to the rebel forces but no American troops in Syria and no implementation of a no-fly zone.
Mr. Assad’s forces apparently used chemical weapons against the opposition on March 19, April 13, May 14 and May 23, according to Mr. Rhodes, who added that circumstances in the war-torn country are growing more dire by the day.
“There is an urgency to the situation. There has been an urgency to the situation for two years. It’s particularly urgent right now,” he said.
Sen. John McCain said the president’s finding should clear the way for the U.S. to begin directly arming the rebel forces, and to impose a no-fly zone over the country to disrupt one of the Syrian regime’s key advantages.
The Arizona Republican, who has visited the country and seen the fight, said the battle in Syria has turned into a much broader proxy war, with Russian arms, Iraqi militant groups and Iranian arms and personnel all backing the Assad regime.
He said the U.S. must take steps — including using cruise missiles — to degrade the regime’s ability to strike at the rebels from the air.
“This is not only a humanitarian issue, it is a national security issue,” he said. “If Iran succeeds in keeping Bashar Assad in power, that will send a message throughout the middle East of Iranian power.”
More than 90,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Mr. Assad began more than two years ago, according to the United Nations. The rebels, who have always faced an uphill fight against the much better-trained and better-armed Assad forces, have suffered a series of setbacks on the battlefield in recent months.
The White House has come under intense pressure to arm the rebels and level the playing field. This week even former President Clinton criticized the Obama administration for its stance, saying the president risks looking like a “fool” in the eyes of history if he does not intervene strongly.
As a parallel track to military support, the administration also is pushing a diplomatic meeting between the two sides. Though it no longer sees Mr. Assad as a credible leader, Mr. Rhodes said, there are benefits to keeping basic government structures in place.
But the chances of such a sit-down, he added, aren’t good.