The U.S. must now determine how it would arm the Syrian opposition movement after concluding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has crossed the "red line" by using chemical weapons against rebel forces in the war-torn state.
A new U.S. intelligence assessment shows the Assad regime has dispatched its cache of weaponized sarin gas on a limited basis against rebel fighters, top White House official Ben Rhodes told reporters Thursday afternoon. The opposition has not attained or used chemical weapons itself, Rhodes added, despite assertions from Assad to the contrary.
President Barack Obama is now considering military, diplomatic, financial or legal responses, said Rhodes. He stopped short of specifying the U.S. would give specific weapons to the opposition movement, opting instead for consulting the U.N. as well as G-8 nations leading up to the summit later in June.
"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," the White House said in a statement Thursday afternoon. "These efforts will increase going forward."
Obama has stated that the use of chemical weapons would amount to crossing a "red line," though he has never outlined specific repercussions.
Rhodes said U.S. support would focus on strengthening the Supreme Military Council – the chief military organization of the opposition – and increasing cohesion among the many factions of rebel fighters in Syria, which now include groups linked to al-Qaida.
The U.S. government has asked the SMC commander, Gen. Salim Idris, for a recommendation on what the opposition needs, the Syrian Support Group tells U.S. News. Idris says he must have communications equipment, anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, and enough small arms ammunition to defend Aleppo – the seat of opposition forces in Syria – which is currently under siege by roughly 20,000 forces loyal to the regime.
"We hope to see U.S. efforts translate into tangible support as soon as possible," says Dan Layman, a spokesman for the SSG, which raises funds for the opposition under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. "We hope we can expect it within the next few months."
Layman would not say what elements of the U.S. government have reached out to Idris.
"Idris will need his arms much sooner than that, however, if he's to hold the city against the Iranian, Iraqi, Hezbollah, PKK, regime and Jaysh al Sha'abi contingents that are lining up to his south and west," Layman said of the outside fighters who have joined Assad's troops.
The U.S. has already briefed Russia on this latest report, Rhodes said. Russia, an historic ally of the Syrian regime, has provided supplies to Assad and has so far refused to call for his ouster.
Members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have for weeks called on Obama to agree to provide arms to the rebel fighters and to support a no-fly zone.
"The conflict in Syria has taken a dramatic turn for the worse," said McCain in a joint Thursday statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Hezbollah is all in. Iran is all in. Iraqi militant groups are flowing into Syria to fight for Assad. Russia continues to provide military and diplomatic support. Assad is dramatically increasing his use of air power against civilians and opposition forces in Syria. A report today stated that Assad's forces conducted at least 5,000 air-to-ground attacks last month alone."
"A decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the president will take this urgently needed step," they said, also stressing the importance of a no-fly zone.
This sentiment was echoed by Rep. Elliot Engel, D-N.Y, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"In using chemical weapons, Assad has committed a war crime against his own people. What more does the civilized world need in order to come to the aid of the Syrian people who want to rid themselves of this monster?" he said in a written statement. "The president's 'red line' has clearly been crossed, and it is crystal clear that the United States must provide appropriate arms to those in Syria fighting for their lives and freedom. Further delay is not an option."