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Obama's 'red line' crossed, will arm Syrian rebels

In a significant shift in strategy, the Obama administration has announced that it will begin sending arms to Syrian insurgents after citing conclusive evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels.


US President Barack Obama is going to start arming Syrian rebels after two years of vigorous debate within his administration, in an effort to halt the momentum gathered by the government and its Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah allies.

The decision came as the White House announced it had evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government had used chemical weapons against opposition fighters in the civil war that has gripped the country since March 2011 – the “red line” set by the president as a prerequisite for action.

“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,” Benjamin Rhodes, a high-level national security advisor, told reporters.

The White House has cited intelligence officials who believe that 100 to 150 people had been killed in the attacks using chemical weapons.

Small arms and ammunition, but no no-fly zone for now

But even with the change in strategy, top administration officials have indicated that US involvement will be cautious and in collaboration with allies. Moreover, Washington has offered few specifics as to how it will proceed.

With rebels in increasing need of weapons after losing several crucial battles against pro-Assad forces, the administration said via a statement that it would step up military support to the opposition both in “scope and scale” – widely understood to mean that it would send weapons to insurgents.

The New York Times late Thursday reported that the supplies, to be coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, would include small arms, ammunition, and possibly anti-tank weapons.

Top national security advisors have specified, however, that Obama had not yet decided whether to implement a no-fly zone in Syria, something rebel forces -- along with several top US politicians like Senator John McCain -- say is necessary to halt Assad’s bombing of opposition strongholds.

Still, the decision to arm rebels represents a shift in the longstanding US policy of not providing lethal aid, as a war-weary America focuses on ending and winding down its military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Decision follows pressure and shift in crisis

The US announcement comes on the heels of several White House meetings on Syria and amid increasing pressure from both allies abroad and at home – namely former President Bill Clinton – for Obama to act more decisively.

Obama has been more cautious than Britain and France – which pressed the EU earlier this month to lift an embargo on weapons for rebels – and has cited his concern that weapons could fall into the hands of the wrong insurgents, notably those loyal to al Qaeda.

But the crisis in Syria has evolved swiftly, with thousands of battle-savvy Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters helping Assad crack down on the largely Sunni rebellion in a conflict that has killed at least 93,000, according to UN estimates.

US officials will join European counterparts in talks with the commander of the main rebel force, the Free Syrian Army, in Turkey in the next several days. One of the main issues on the table will likely be ensuring that weapons reach the right groups.

Obama also plans to bring up Syria with allies during a G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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