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."
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, added that the regime's use of chemical weapons clinched the argument for greater U.S. involvement.
"If the U.S. is not prepared to provide more robust assistance, then I fear that the moderate opposition forces will be defeated," he said in a statement. "The U.S. should move swiftly to shift the balance on the ground in Syria by considering grounding the Syrian air force with stand-off weapons and protecting a safe zone in northern Syria with Patriot missiles in Turkey."
Even Mr. Obama's Democratic predecessor in the White House, Bill Clinton, urged action.
Mr. Clinton said Mr. Obama risks looking like a fool in the eyes of history if he allows the Syrian slaughter to progress.
The White House acknowledges that the situation in Syria is growing more dire as the influence of Iran, Hezbollah and other anti-American entities become more involved.
"There is an urgency to the situation. There has been an urgency to the situation for the last two years. It's particularly urgent right now ... because we have seen Hezbollah and Iran increase their own involvement in the conflict," Mr. Rhodes said.
'Range of options'
Exactly how far Mr. Obama is willing to go remains unclear.
Mr. Rhodes said there is "a range of options" open to the administration. The first steps will be more assistance to the rebel forces in the form of communications equipment, military training, medical supplies and other nonlethal means. A no-fly zone isn't off the table, Mr. Rhodes said, though he questioned how effective it would be.
"A no-fly zone, while there is a contingency plan for many different things, would carry with it great and open-ended costs for the United States and the international community," he said.
As a parallel track to military support, the administration also is pushing a diplomatic meeting between the government and the collection of moderate and radical forces that make up the opposition. Though Washington no longer sees Mr. Assad as a credible leader, Mr. Rhodes said, there are benefits to keeping basic government structures in place and maintaining vital services for the Syrian people.
But the chances of such a sit-down aren't good, he said.
"We have no illusions that this is going to be easy to put together," Mr. Rhodes said.
Two years ago, the president established a no-fly zone over Libya without seeking the approval of Congress, creating a constitutional crisis with Republicans and Democrats in the House arguing that Mr. Obama overstepped his powers. Syria's anti-aircraft weaponry is believed to be far more potent than those in Libya.
On Thursday, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who led the push for Mr. Obama to consult with Congress on Libya, said the president must act to remove the Assad regime but must check with Congress beforehand.
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