The Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebel forces trying to overthrow the regime, the Obama administration said Thursday, acknowledging that President Bashar Assad has without doubt crossed the “red line” President Obama laid down for U.S. action in the country’s bloody civil war.
The announcement, which confirms what the U.S. and its allies have long suspected, ups the pressure on Mr. Obama, and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill said this means there must be deeper U.S. military involvement in the 2-year-old civil war.
Putting American boots on the ground in Syria isn’t being considered, but administration officials said the U.S. will increase the “scope and scale” of its military assistance to the Assad government’s opponents, who have suffered major setbacks at the hands of government forces in recent weeks. Administration officials told The Associated Press on Thursday night that Mr. Obama has authorized sending arms directly to the rebels, but that no decisions had been made on the timing or on what kind of weaponry would be made available.
“The president has made his decision,” Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters late Thursday afternoon. “Suffice it to say that decision has been made about providing additional direct support to the [opposition Supreme Military Council] to strengthen their effectiveness. This is more a situation where we’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance other than to communicate that we have made that decision.”
Mr. Rhodes added that no decision has been made on U.S. participation in establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, and questions remain about the unity of the opposition and the presence of radical Islamist elements in the coalition.
Mr. Rhodes said U.S. intelligence believes the regime has used sarin and other chemical weapons “on a small scale” against several rebel targets at least four times over the past year, and he listed the dates. He said the known death toll is 100 to 150 people, though it could be higher because the intelligence is incomplete.
Mr. Rhodes said the intelligence community “has high confidence” in its assessment that chemical weapons have been used because its information comes from multiple sources.
The United Nations said Thursday that 92,000 people have been killed since the civil war began more than two years ago.
Pressure from Congress
On Capitol Hill, key lawmakers said the determination will force the U.S. to play a larger role in protecting the rebels.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has been pushing for deeper ties to the rebels, said the U.S. should establish a no-fly zone and use missiles to degrade the Syrian government’s military power.
Mr. McCain, who has visited Syria and seen the fight firsthand, said it has turned into a much broader proxy war, with Russian arms, Iraqi militant groups, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and Iranian arms and personnel backing the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers in the region have provided support for the rebels.
“This is not only a humanitarian issue, it is a national security issue,” Mr. McCain said. “If Iran succeeds in keeping Bashar Assad in power, that will send a message throughout the Middle East of Iranian power.”
Mr. McCain, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and others said Mr. Obama should go before the American people to explain what the government will do and the stakes for the U.S. in the Syrian conflict.
“It’s increasingly clear the president does not have a coherent plan to manage this growing strategic catastrophe …,” said Mr. Cantor, Virginia Republican. “I call on President Obama to explain to the Congress and the American people his plan to bring this conflict to an end in a manner that protects the interests of the United States and our allies.”