Syrian opposition leaders are accusing President Obama of emboldening the embattled Syrian regime by backing away from his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in the 2-year-old war against President Bashar Assad.
Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the rebel forces in Syria, said in a letter to Mr. Obama that the president’s “carefully phrased condemnations” of the use of chemical weapons in Syria are seen by Mr. Assad not as warnings “but as loopholes, which justify his continued use of chemical weapons on a small, strategic scale.”
Gen. Idriss said the rebels desperately need Mr. Obama’s help as they have “neither the requisite training nor equipment to counter the effects of Assad’s chemical weapons.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed the existence of Gen. Idriss’ letter, which was first reported by CBS News.
Mr. Carney dismissed other reports that the White House is considering arming the rebels, but he insisted that all options remain on the table.
“It is our policy that we have not and are not providing weapons to the Syrian opposition, but we are continuing to review our options,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, specifically the chemical agent Sarin, on a small scale in the conflict.
The Obama administration has said use of chemical weapons by the regime is a red line which, if crossed, would have consequences. But neither the president nor his administration officials have spelled out what those repercussions might be.
Mr. Kamal al-Labwani, a physician and liberal member of the Syrian opposition coalition, said he provided evidence of the use of chemical weapons to the CIA and British intelligence service MI6.
“After first saying, ‘Yes, chemical weapons were used,’ they are now backing away,” Mr. al-Labwani said from Istanbul. “Mr. Obama has made a big mistake. His red line has turned yellow.”
Mr. Obama said at a news conference Tuesday that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game-changer” and that his administration would have to “rethink the range of options that are available to us.”
The president said that while there is evidence of chemical weapons being used inside Syria, “we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”
Syrian army defectors say the Assad regime has about 1,200 tons of chemical weapons, including the nerve agent VX, mustard gas and Sarin gas. But it is unclear how much control the regime has over these stockpiles.
“A lot of samples of the poisons have been stolen from the Assad army,” Mr. al-Labwani said. “I don’t think Assad controls the poisons, the [Syrian army] officers act by themselves and the poison has spread into the hands of thugs that support the regime.”
The danger that the chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands has become even more imminent with the involvement of foreign terrorist groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah.