US pledges military aid to Syria rebels as battles rage

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DAMASCUS: The United States dramatically toughened its line on Syria, accusing it of using chemical weapons and promising military aid to the opposition, as regime forces Friday battled rebels in Aleppo city.

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President Barack Obama’s administration announced Thursday it had conducted a review of intelligence reports and concluded that Syrian regime forces had used banned arms, including sarin nerve gas, in attacks that killed up to 150 people.

Officials refused to rule out moving towards arming anti-regime rebels or imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, and said it would provide backing to opposition armed wing the Syrian Military Council (SMC).

“The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition. That will involve providing direct support to the SMC. That includes military support,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, declining to elaborate.

Syria’s main opposition National Coalition said in a statement issued by its US office that it “welcomes increased US assistance including direct military support”.

“The support should be strategic and decisive in order to force an end to the violence and to achieve a political transition,” it said.

Hawkish US lawmakers welcomed the administration’s change in position but one, Senator John McCain, said Obama needed to go further.

“We need heavy weaponry. We need the kind that can counter tanks, and we need surface-to-air missiles,” McCain said.

Rhodes did not confirm weapons would be sent but warned Washington had toughened its stance.

“The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” he said, adding that Washington has a number of “legal, financial, diplomatic, and military responses available”.

Rhodes said the increased involvement of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Syria’s ally Iran in the conflict had “added an element of urgency” to calls for a tougher response from the United States and its allies.

The Wall Street Journal reported that US military proposals for arming Syrian rebels include a limited no-fly zone over rebel training camps.

This zone would stretch up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) into Syria, and would be enforced by warplanes inside Jordan airspace armed with long-distance air-to-air missiles, the Journal reported, citing unnamed US officials.

Military experts have long warned that a no-fly zone would require jets to destroy the relatively good air defences of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

But US planners believe a no-fly zone could be imposed in about a month without having to destroy Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.

A US defence official had previously told AFP Washington will keep F-16 fighters and Patriot anti-missile batteries in Jordan after a joint exercise ends this month.

The military also plans to keep a unit of US Marines on amphibious ships off the coast after consultations with Jordan’s leadership, he said.

Washington has long led demands, echoed by its European and Arab allies, that Assad must step down before Syria’s factions can begin to reunite the country after more than two years of civil war that has left tens of thousand of people dead.

But it has resisted calls to arm the rebellion against the strongman’s rule, amid fears that many of the divided rebel forces are Islamist extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda and like-minded extremist anti-Western groups.

Thursday’s US announcement appeared to mark a decisive shift in tone, and came as the rebel coalition was facing extreme pressure on the battlefield from loyalist forces supported by Iranian-backed militiamen from Lebanon.

Fighting raged on Friday, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting fierce battles in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s once-thriving commercial capital which is now ravaged by war.

The watchdog said regime troops shelled the rebel-held Sakhur neighbourhood, killing at least two people and wounding others.

The group said it was unclear if the fighting was part of a larger assault the regime has vowed unleash to regain control of Aleppo and the surrounding province, large parts of which are under rebel control.

With the conflict escalating, the United Nations in Geneva said at least 93,000 people, including more than 6,500 children, have been killed.

The UN also expressed concern in a statement Friday from Damascus about the humanitarian situation in Damascus province, estimating that more than 1.2 million people in the area were “in urgent need of humanitarian assistance”.

“Since March 2013, UN humanitarian agencies in Syria have made repeated efforts to deliver urgently required relief items to the civilian population stranded in the area of Muadhamiya in Rural Damascus,” the statement said.

“Due to ongoing hostilities, an estimated 5,000 families in Muadhamiya are subject to immense suffering and they have not received sufficient assistance for many months,” it said.

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