US President Barack Obama’s decision to authorize lethal aid to Syrian rebels marks a deepening of US involvement in the two-year civil war, but US officials are still grappling with what type and how much weaponry to send the opposition forces, and how to ensure it stays out of the hands of extremists battling for control of Syria.
US officials confirmed Obama’s authorization on Thursday after the White House announced it had conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.”
While a small percentage of the 93,000 people reportedly killed in Syria are said to have died from chemical weapons, the White House views the deployment of the deadly agents as a flouting of international norms.
US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the multiple chemical weapons attacks give greater urgency to the situation.
“Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale in terms of what we are providing,” Rhodes said of the ramped-up US response.
However, he added the US would make specific determinations “on our own time line.”
The Obama administration could give the rebels a range of weapons, including small arms, assault rifles, shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles. The opposition forces could operate most of that equipment without significant training.
Obama’s opposition to sending US troops into Syria makes it less likely that the US 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 al-Assad’s armed forces and some extremist groups 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 US has agreed to supply, another US official said.
There is also some debate within the administration about who would provide the lethal aid and how it might be delivered, US officials said.
All the officials insisted on anonymity when revealing internal administration discussions.
Obama has resisted arming the rebels until now, a cautious approach that underscores the deep divisions within his administration. The proponents of more aggressive action, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, appear to have won out over those wary of sending weapons into the war zone.
The US has made no decision on operating a no-fly zone over Syria, Rhodes said.
Word of the stepped-up assistance followed new US intelligence assessments showing that al-Assad has used chemical weapons, including sarin, on a small scale multiple times in the last year, killing an estimated 100 to 150 people.
The administration announced in April that it had “varying degrees of confidence” that sarin had been used in Syria, but it said at the time that it had not been able to determine who was responsible for deploying the gas.
The more conclusive findings announced on Thursday were aided by evidence sent to the US by France.