U.S. to Give Syrian Rebels Military Aid

Washington — The United States has concluded that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons to kill at least 100 people, crossing a “red line” and prompting President Obama to provide direct military support to the rebels for the first time, the White House said yesterday.

“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” White House deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes said.

Rhodes declined to provide an “inventory” or timetable for any military equipment to be sent, but said the assistance would be “responsive to the needs” expressed by the rebel command. He said the president had “not made any decision to pursue a military option such as a no-fly zone.”

Syria’s outgunned rebels have issued urgent appeals this week for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to counter a government offensive that is backed by Hezbollah and Iranian forces.

“Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale,” Rhodes said of the new assistance.

Until now the United States has limited its assistance to nonlethal supplies and aid such as communications gear, food and medical supplies. In a conference call with reporters, Rhodes declined to detail the types of “military support” that would be provided. He added that the United States will continue to seek a negotiated peace settlement even while more broadly joining the Syrian fight.

Rhodes said Obama would consult allies about the specifics of the new shipments at next week’s Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland. The sessions will also be attended by Russia, the Syrian government’s main international ally and arms supplier.

Rhodes said U.S. officials had briefed Russia on what U.S. intelligence agencies said was a “high confidence” assessment that chemical weapons had been used, including the nerve gas sarin “in small quantities” on at least four occasions this year.

There is no reliable evidence that Western-backed rebels in Syria have used chemical agents, as Syrian President Bashar Assad claims, the White House said in a statement.

“There is an urgency to the situation. There has been an urgency to the situation for two years,” Rhodes said. “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 in the conflict.”

The announcement came after an interim determination in April that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria. Obama said he wanted further evidence before deciding what to do next, in part because of the lesson of Iraq, where inaccurate U.S. intelligence indicated Saddam Hussein’s government had developed weapons of mass destruction.

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses 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,” a White House statement said.

Between 100 and 150 people are estimated to have died as a result of chemical weapons, the White House said, although it added that the casualty data is probably incomplete.

The United Nations estimated yesterday that more than 90,000 people have died in more than two years of fighting.

“The president has been clear that the use of chemical weapons — or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups — is a red line for the United States,” the White Hose statement said.

The announcement follows similar determinations from close U.S. allies Britain and France.