The Obama administration has caved in to hawks in Congress and his administration and will arm the Syrian rebels after the US determined that President Assad crossed a red line by ising chemical weapons.
The UN, our NATO allies, and most of the world have known for weeks that the Syrian army has used poison gas against the rebels. It appears now that the president's ill-informed talk of "red lines" has involved the US in a ruinous combination of a civil and sectarian war.
Syria has crossed a "red line" with its use of chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin gas, against rebels, a move that is prompting the United States to increase the "scale and scope" of its support for the opposition, the White House said Thursday.
The acknowledgment is the first time President Barack Obama's administration has definitively said what it has long suspected -- that President Bashar al-Assad's forces have used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war.
"The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a statement released by the White House.
"While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades," Rhodes added.
Our assistance will take the form of arming and training Syrian rebels as well as perhaps establishing a no-fly zone to protect the rebels, although no decision has been made.
The Obama administration could give the rebels a range of weapons, including small arms, assault rifles, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles. The opposition forces could operate most of that equipment without significant training.
In Syria Friday, the Foreign Ministry said, "The White House has issued a statement full of lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria based on fabricated information. The United States is using cheap tactics to justify President Barack Obama's decision to arm the Syrian opposition."
And the commander of the main Western-backed rebel group fighting in Syria said he hoped that U.S. weapons will be in the hands of rebels in the near future, noting it would boost the spirits of the fighters on the ground. "We hope to have the weapons and ammunition that we need in the near future," Gen. Salim Idris told Al-Arabiya TV.
"This will surely reflect positively on the rebels' morale, which is high despite attempts by the regime, Hezbollah and Iran to show that their morale after the fall of Qusair deteriorated," he said, referring to the town near the border with Lebanon.
Obama's opposition to sending American troops into Syria makes it less likely the U.S. will provide sophisticated arms or anti-aircraft weapons that would require large-scale training. Administration officials are also worried about high-powered weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups. Hezbollah fighters are among those backing Assad's armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists back the rebellion.
The CIA and special operations trainers are already running some weapons training programs for the rebels and are expected to take charge of teaching the opposition how to use the weapons the U.S. has agreed to supply, another U.S. official said.
Interestingly, the administration is contemplating using Jordan as a base of operations and not Turkey where there is already extensive infrastructure to supply and train the rebels. This reflects US fears that Jordan, inundated by Syrian refugees, may become unstable if the war continues.
Establishing a no fly zone would involve a combat role for the air force and possibly naval aviators:
The limited no-fly zone wouldn't require the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries, U.S. officials said.
Officials said the White House could decide to authorize the U.S. to arm and train rebels in Jordan without authorizing the no-fly zone recommended by military planners. A White House announcement could come soon, officials said.
Jordan has been inundated by a flood of refugees that Jordanian and U.S. officials say is a growing threat to the kingdom, a key U.S. ally in the region. The U.S. has already moved Patriot air defense batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan, which could be integral to any no-fly zone if President Barack Obama approves the military proposal.
Proponents of the proposal say a no-fly zone could be imposed without a U.N. Security Council resolution, since the U.S. would not regularly enter Syrian airspace and wouldn't hold Syrian territory.
U.S. planes have air-to-air missiles that could destroy Syrian planes from long ranges. But officials said that aircraft may be required to enter Syrian air space if threatened by advancing Syrian planes. Such an incursion by the U.S., if it were to happen, could be justified as self-defense, officials say.
Military planners believe it would be dangerous to set up a major operation inside Jordan to arm the rebels without creating a no-fly zone to hold Syrian aircraft back.
"Unless you have a good buffer zone inside Syria, you risk too much," said a U.S. official briefed on the military proposal.
Creating even a limited buffer zone that Syrian airplanes cannot enter will be expensive, costing an estimated $50 million a day. Still, officials say that a full no-fly zone covering all of Syria would cost far more money. Officials said the U.S. hopes the operation would be conducted with other allies, who could help pay for the cost of a no-fly zone.
Bill Clinton's prod of Obama on Syria probably played no role in the decision to intervene, but one wonders if the actual strategy was impacted by the former president's stinging words. It hardly matters at this point. We're in it. Right smack dab in the middle of the bloodiest revolution in the Middle East in years and a sectarian conflict that might draw in other countries in the region. On top of that, we have no idea what the military is going to do to avoid giving arms to al-Qaeda backed rebel groups. Hope and pray?
Our intervention is far too little to make any real difference - except get more people mad at us and tragically, some Americans killed. What the rebels need - armor, artillery, aircraft - we can't give them. Those are the kinds of assets that will help the rebels defeat Assad's forces, not RPG's and anti-tank weapons. In fact, it's a possibility that by supplying the rebels with slightly more sophisticated weapons than they have now, we will prolong the conflict rather than shorten it.
With our intervention, Russia will now feel little or no constraints on supplying President Assad with top of the line equipment - including, perhaps, more sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down our planes. Why not? We can hardly complain to the UN given our own unilateral intervention.
One can appreciate the difficulty of the president's position, but it's largely his own doing. Syria is already a basket case and it's hard to see how this isn't going to end badly.