WASHINGTON, D.C.: The United States dramatically toughened its stance on Syria on Thursday (Friday in Manila), accusing Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons against his people and promising “military support” to rebel forces.
President Barack Obama’s administration announced it had conducted a review of intelligence reports and concluded that Syrian regime forces had used banned arms, including the nerve gas sarin, 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 the Syrian Military Council (SMC), the armed wing of the opposition.
“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.
“I cannot detail for you all of the types of that support, for a variety of reasons, but again, suffice to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing,” he said.
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.”
He also said that, Washington had passed its information on chemical weapons to Russia, which is an ally of Syria and the main obstacle on the UN Security Council to international action against Assad.
Rhodes said that, 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.
Meanwhile, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed a “clear” US statement accusing the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons and said Damascus must let the UN investigate the allegations.
He said the international community had made clear that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “completely unacceptable” and a “breach of international law”.
“NATO Patriots will ensure effective protection of Turkey against any Syria missile attack, chemical or not,” he said, referring to the air defence missiles that NATO has stationed in Turkey.