LONDON — Reaction to the U.S. decision to arm the Syrian rebels broke along predictable lines Friday, with U.S. allies supportive and Syria and its allies, including Russia, critical.
The fighting has raged in Syria for two years, and the United Nations says more than 93,000 people have been killed. But the deaths of about 100 of them have changed the strategic situation.
The U.S. government announced Thursday that it has concluded those people died from chemical weapons used by Syrian government forces - crossing a “red line” President Barack Obama set several months ago. It said it would provide more support to the opposition, including military aid.
Syria denied using chemical weapons, and in Brussels, the NATO secretary general called on the Assad regime to prove it. “I welcome the clear U.S. statement. It is urgent that the Syrian regime should grant access to the United Nations to investigate all the reports of chemical weapon use," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The United States had been reluctant to arm the rebels, concerned about fueling sectarian tensions and having Western weapons fall into the hands of militants. But the alleged use of chemical weapons has changed that calculation.
Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian rebels, welcomed the change.
"I think having those weapons will truly change the balance of power. It will enable the Syrian opposition, represented by the Syrian coalition, to think seriously about going to Geneva II,” Saleh said.
That is the peace conference the United States and Russia are trying to organize.
Analyst Chris Doyle, at the Center for Arab British Understanding, says that is the real goal of increasing military aid for the rebels after recent battlefield gains by the government.
“If they want to have a viable political process, then they need to get all the parties around the table at Geneva, without the sense that the regime is victorious,” Doyle said.
But on Friday, Russian officials were angered by the U.S. move.
The chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, said the United States has “no real evidence” of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. He also accused the rebels of using such weapons “often.”
Key European leaders have long advocated arming the Syrian rebels, and they will likely join President Obama in pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin starting Monday, when he makes his first return to a G8 summit since regaining his post last year.