WHITE HOUSE— The White House has announced a new definitive assessment that says chemical weapons have been used on a small scale by the Assad regime in Syria. President Barack Obama has made a decision to provide new assistance, including unspecified military aid, to the Syrian opposition forces.
Following what it calls a deliberative review, the White House says chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, were used on a small scale multiple times against opposition forces in the last year.
A statement says the intelligence community attaches a high confidence level to this assessment based on “multiple, independent streams of information."
It says an estimated 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date, but stresses that the casualty data is likely incomplete.
The White House provided details of the assessment to Congress, and shared information with key allies, the United Nations and Russia.
Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said President Obama's "red line" has been crossed.
Rhodes, however, made clear this does not mean any U.S. boots on the ground, but does mean new direct support to the Syrian Opposition Council and the rebel Supreme Military Council.
“This is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing to the SMC, than what we have provided before. So, the president has made a decision, in part because of the assessed use of chemical weapons, to provide additional types of support to the SMC, which I cannot inventory for you but which will be aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the SMC on the ground,”Rhodes said.
Rhodes said this new aid will be in cooperation with other countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and in consultation with Britain and France.
At the United Nations, Britain's ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who also is president of the Security Council, said the U.S. announcement came as no surprise.
“Speaking in my national capacity, we are not surprised by the determination made by the U.S. government. As you know, we have said for some time we believe that there is persuasive evidence of use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons in Syria. In terms of the implications of that, we are in consultations with the U.S. government and other allies about the next steps in Syria,” Grant said.
White House official Ben Rhodes said there has been no decision to pursue a no-fly-zone, although contingency plans have been drawn up. This, he said, would carry with it “great and open-ended costs” for the U.S. and international community.
Going forward, Rhodes said the U.S. will continue to consult with Syria's opposition and allies and partners about steps that have the best potential of having a positive impact on the ground.
Rhodes said the U.S. still believes a political settlement is the preferable outcome in Syria, and that the Geneva process provides a “template” for that. Talks would have to involve the opposition and Assad regime, although he noted that Russia still has not agreed to the need for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Asked specifically how Syria's opposition needs to be improved, Rhodes listed its effectiveness as a fighting force and its cohesion, and ongoing needs for communication equipment and medical supplies.