The US has announced that it will arm Syrian rebels. President Bashar al-Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against opposition fighters, the White House has claimed.
Saying that al-Assad had crossed a chemical weapons "red line" set by President Barack Obama, the administration announced that it would move cautiously - and in concert with its allies - on what steps to take. A no-fly zone over rebel areas has also been proposed.
"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," Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters. He added that the president "said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels Friday that the White House claims were "a matter of great concern." He called chemical weapons use of any kind "completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law," adding it was urgent the Syrian government allow the UN to investigate all claims of chemical weapons use.
Russian officials have called the allegations of chemical weapons use unconvincing.
On Thursday, the UN announced that the war has killed at least 93,000 since it began as a series of peaceful protests in 2011. That UN found that the number of people killed has risen drastically over the past year, with the average monthly toll since July 2012 standing at more than 5,000, compared with 1,000 in the summer of 2011.
‘Strategic and decisive'
Recently, rebel forces have suffered battlefield setbacks such as the fall of the strategic town of Qusair following the arrival of Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters helping al-Assad. In light of this, Rhodes said that Obama had decided to ramp up military support to the opposition both in "scope and scale." The New York Times reported for its Friday edition that supplies, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include anti-tank weapons.
Syria's opposition National Coalition announced in a statement that it "welcomes increased US assistance including direct military support," which "should be strategic and decisive in order to force an end to the violence and to achieve a political transition."
International officials will meet the commander of the main rebel fighting force, the Free Syrian Army, in Turkey in the coming days. FSA chief Salim Idriss was expected to plead for more help.
Following the victory in Qusair, al-Assad and Hezbollah have moved northward, toward Aleppo and bombarded Homs. Governments that predicted months ago that al-Assad would fall believe support from Iran and Hezbollah have given him the upper hand. However, they also worry that sending arms to rebel fighters could empower Sunni Islamist insurgents who have pledged their loyalty to al Qaeda.
Obama has proved more cautious than Britain and France, which forced the European Union this month to lift an embargo that had blocked weapons for the rebels. He plans to consult allies during a Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland next week.
mkg/dr (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)