London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The United States has announced that it will supply direct military aid, including arms, to the Syrian rebels for the first time.
US president Barack Obama took the decision after his administration concluded that Assad regime forces have utilized chemical weapons over the course of the war, crossing a clear “red line.”
Obama’s deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, said: “The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”
“Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC),” he added.
“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC. These efforts will increase going forward,” the US deputy national security advisor pledged.
Even following Obama’s decision to supply lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, Washington remains divided over whether to take an even stronger stance to quell the fighting that has been raging for more than two years.
The New York Times reported that many US officials believe that the military balance has titled so far in the Assad regime’s favor over the past few months that US arms being sent to select groups will make little difference.
The report revealed that senior US State Department officials are pushing for a more aggressive military response, including air strikes targeting primary landing strips.
Syria’s foreign ministry accused Washington of “lies” and “fabrications” over its chemical weapons evidence, describing the decision to arm the rebels as a “flagrant double standard” in its dealings with terrorism. Damascus described the White House statement as a “caravan of lies”.
For its part, Moscow announced that US claims about the use of chemical weapons in Syria use are unconvincing.
Senior Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov told reporters that the US administration has shared its evidence with Moscow, “but frankly we thought that it was not convincing.”
MP Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign policy committee in the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, also rejected the US evidence.
“The data about Assad’s use of chemical weapons is fabricated by the same facility that made up the lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Obama is walking George W. Bush’s path,” he tweeted.
For his part, Rhodes confirmed that the US is “working with allies to present a credible, evidentiary case to share with the international community and the public.”
This change of attitude came ahead of the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, where world powers are expected to discuss ways to end the Syrian civil war.
Speaking ahead of the summit, British foreign secretary William Hague said the UK will be “urgently” discussing its response to the crisis with the US following the latest developments. Hague emphasized that Britain and other countries must “be prepared to do more to save lives” in Syria.
The British foreign secretary hinted that the UK could seek to follow Washington’s lead, saying that the deteriorating situation in Syria requires a “strong, determined and coordinated response from the international community”.
Obama’s decision to step up US support for the Syrian rebels came only hours after the UN issued a report which put the death toll of the Syrian crisis at 93,000.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, head of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdulrahman claimed that “the SOHR has documented 98,500 deaths,” but added that the actual death toll is probably higher owing to the number of undocumented deaths.
“The majority of the deaths that are not documented are foreign fighters known as Muhajiroun (emigrants) who fight with the opposition, not to mention regime soldiers and prisoners who die in detention,” Abdulrahman added.
“Around 50,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the uprising in March, 2011, along with 13,128 rebels and 1,900 defectors,” Abdulrahman said.
“Twenty-five thousand Assad regime soldiers have been killed,” Abdulrahman added, indicating that 156 Hezbollah fighters have died in the fighting so far.