Thursday’s announcement that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons and that President Obama has decided to give the Syrian rebels increased “military assistance” comes as the Syrian opposition and their allies prepare to defend the city of Aleppo. But the battle might come before the aid arrives.
In a statement and conference call late Thursday, the White House made a stunning revelation: the U.S. intelligence community can now certify with “high confidence” that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, sarin gas specifically, against its own people in small scales on multiple occasions, resulting in 100 to 150 deaths. The use of chemical weapons crosses Obama’s “red line,” the White House said, and has caused Obama to “change his calculus” about how the U.S. should respond to the ever deepening crisis in Syria.
White House Deputy National-Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that Obama had made a decision to increase both “the scope and the scale” of the “military assistance” the U.S. would be providing to the Free Syrian Army and the Supreme Military Command, led by Gen. Salem Idris. But Rhodes repeatedly refused to say whether the increased aid would include lethal aid, weapons that could actually be used to kill people, rather than nonlethal aid in the form of communications and intelligence support and items that have a military application, such as body armor and night-vision goggles.
“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the Supreme Military Council. That includes military support,” Rhodes said. “We are not going to be able to lay out an inventory.”
Obama’s decision came out of a series of high-level interagency meetings, including one Wednesday where the option of providing lethal arms to the Syrian rebels was discussed. The State Department is known to support sending lethal arms to the opposition, while the White House has long opposed crossing that line due to fears the weapons could fall into the wrong hands or exacerbate the conflict.
But Rhodes acknowledged that the gains made by the regime in recent battles, combined with the increased involvement of Hezbollah fighters in the battles, along with the new higher confidence that the regime was using chemical weapons, all contributed to a heightened sense of urgency inside the White House on the issue.
“There’s an urgency to the situation. There has been an urgency to the situation for two years. 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, and that has caused an influx of additional fighters to the conflict. And so that has added an element of urgency,” Rhodes said.
Lawmakers and experts told The Daily Beast they don’t think the White House’s sense of urgency is enough considering the impending battle for Aleppo, which stands to be the next major battleground in the two-plus-year civil war that has ravaged the country and now resulted in nearly 93,000 deaths, according to the United Nations.
The administration decided in April to authorize the provision of nonlethal military assistance to the Syrian rebels, but none of that assistance has actually arrived in Syria, two administration officials said. The only direct aid the Supreme Military Council has received from the U.S. has been Meals, Ready-to-Eat, and medical kits, which were delivered in May.
This week, General Idris has been calling everyone and anyone in Western governments, pleading for more help in advance of what they predict will be a combined regime-Hezbollah offensive in Aleppo in the coming days and weeks. Idris called several U.S. officials to plead for weapons, including Senate Foreign Relations Near East Subcommittee chairman Bob Casey (D-PA), who spoke with The Daily Beast on Thursday.
“We’re at a fork in the road. We’ve got to make sure Aleppo doesn’t fall. The indicators are so compelling now there has to be a greater sense of urgency,” says Casey, who supports not only arming moderate, vetted groups within the Syrian opposition, but also taking action to degrade the regime’s ability to use air power against its citizens.
“I would hope the administration would consider a military option, some other strategy in a coalition that would degrade their Air Force. That’s the most significant advantage that the regime has,” Casey said. “The regime and Hezbollah are gathering in the north and west of Aleppo. It will be extremely difficult [to defeat them] without the kind of weapons that can combat tanks and regime aircraft.”
The Daily Beast has learned that Idris will attend a multilateral meeting in Turkey on Friday organized to plan a strategy for the defense of Aleppo. British and French officials are confirmed to attend, but as of Thursday evening, it was not clear if the U.S. State Department planned to send anyone. Haynes Mahoney, a senior official working for Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, is in the region and would be the U.S. official most likely to go.
Experts said that the administration may not be moving quickly enough to save Aleppo, considering the slow pace of its decision making and the even slower pace of its implementation of previous decisions to give increased assistance to the struggling rebels.
“You have an overall picture of a Syria that is melting down. We can’t keep on doing as little as we are doing and expect a different outcome,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If the regime retakes Aleppo, it would be a huge Iranian victory right at the time we are dealing with their nuclear program. How would that help our regional policy? It would be a disaster.”
One administration official says that lethal arms are not part of the new items Obama has now authorized.
“The president has made a decision to provide the Syrian opposition with military items that can increase their effectiveness on the ground, but at this point it does not include things like guns and bullets,” the official tells The Daily Beast.
But other officials said that Obama may have decided to authorize the provision of lethal weapons to the Syrian rebels without informing large parts of the administration’s national-security bureaucracy because of the secret nature of such programs. The White House refused to clarify on the record whether lethal aid would be part of the new items.
“It’s going to be substantively different from what we were providing before our chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes said Thursday, referring to the April revelation that the U.S. intelligence community had determined that chemical weapons had been used inside Syria with “varying degrees” of confidence.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) certainly believed that Obama had made the decision to directly arm the Syrian rebels.
“The president also will announce that we will be assisting the Syrian rebels by providing them with weapons and other assistance. I applaud the president’s decision,” he said on the Senate floor just before the White House released its statement.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told The Daily Beast that’s what McCain was told.
“Senator McCain heard that from reliable sources,” Rogers says. “His remarks on the floor made clear that arms alone won’t change the balance of power on the ground—they need to be coupled with a no-fly zone to have the necessary impact.”