WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has authorized sending weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time, U.S. officials said Thursday, after the White House disclosed that the United States has conclusive evidence President Bashar Assad’s government used chemical weapons against opposition forces trying to overthrow him.
Obama has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” triggering greater American intervention in the two-year crisis.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the strongest proponents of U.S. military action in Syria, said he was told Thursday that Obama had decided to “provide arms to the rebels,” a decision confirmed by three U.S. officials. The officials cautioned that no decisions had been made on the specific type of weaponry or when it would reach the Syrian rebels, who are under increasing assault from Assad’s forces.
Still, the White House signaled that Obama did plan to step up U.S. involvement in the Syrian crisis in response to the chemical weapons disclosure.
“This is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The U.S. has so far provided the Syrian rebel army with rations and medical supplies.
Thursday’s announcement followed a series of urgent meetings at the White House this week that revealed deep divisions within the administration over U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war. The proponents of more aggressive action – including Secretary of State John Kerry – appeared to have won out over those wary of sending weapons and ammunition into a war zone where Hezbollah and Iranian fighters are backing Assad’s armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists back the rebellion.
Obama still opposes putting American troops on the ground in Syria and the U.S. has made no decision on operating a no-fly zone over Syria, Rhodes said.
U.S. officials said the administration could provide the rebels with a range of weapons, including small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other missiles. However, a final decision on the inventory has not been made, the officials said.