Syrian president has used chemical weapons, crossing ‘red line,’ US says

The White House announced Thursday that the Obama administration has conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons against his opposition, killing up to 150 people in the last year and crossing what President Obama has called a “red line” that would lead to greater American involvement in the crisis.

It was not immediately clear what the next U.S. move would be, but a statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said that the use of chemical weapons by Syria has changed the President’s “calculus.”

Pentagon officials told that they did not expect immediate U.S. military action. However, the Associated Press reported Thursday night that U.S. officials had confirmed that President Obama authorized sending weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the strongest proponents of U.S. military action in Syria, said he was told Thursday that Obama had decided to “provide arms to the rebels,” a decision confirmed by three U.S. officials, AP said. The officials cautioned that no decisions had been made on the specific type of weaponry or when it would reach the Syrian rebels, who are under increasing assault from Assad’s forces.

“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,” Rhodes said in a statement released by the White House press office.

“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information. The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete.”

The statement reiterated Obama’s repeated statements that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, saying that “the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades.”

It added, “The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.” As a result, it said, the president has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and has also authorized the expansion of assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC).

McCain, speaking on the Senate floor, said the president needed to understand that just supplying weapons would not change the equation on the ground. McCain also said more substantial measures, such as heavy weaponry and a no-fly zone, might be necessary.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., also warned that action was required in order to give meaning to the White House’s words, saying: “The President has stated that a red line has been crossed. But I would observe that red lines are meaningless unless they are backed by action.”

Obama still opposes putting American troops on the ground in Syria and the U.S. has made no decision on operating a no-fly zone over Syria, Rhodes said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., issued a statement saying: “I am pleased that President Obama’s Administration has joined the growing international chorus declaring that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in Syria, crossing the red line drawn by the President last August. Assad must not be allowed to continue to commit these atrocities.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also offered cautious support for the White House.

“My colleagues and I stand ready to work with the President. 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.”

Congress was notified of the chemical weapons finding Thursday in classified documents sent to Capitol Hill, White House officials said. Obama will discuss the assessments, along with broader problems in Syria, next week during the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland.

The Obama administration announced in April that it had “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin had been used in Syria. But it said at the time that it had not been able to determine who was responsible for deploying the gas.

The more conclusive findings announced Thursday were aided by evidence sent to the United States by France, which along with Britain, announced it had determined that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons in the two-year conflict.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said his country was “not surprised by the determination made by the U.S. government,” given its own assessments, and was in consultation with the Americans about next steps.

The U.S. has so far provided the Syrian rebel army with rations and medical supplies. In April, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the administration had agreed in principle to expand its military support to the opposition to include defensive items like night vision goggles, body armor and armored vehicles.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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