U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes announced on a conference call with reporters yesterday that the U.S. intelligence community now believes with a high degree of confidence that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people on multiple occasions. The Assad regime’s apparent use of sarin gas, which has killed an estimated 100 to 150 people in the past year, marks the first use of chemical weapons by a state since former President of Iraq Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988. It is also the first state use of chemical weapons since the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993—signed by all member states except Syria and five others—after decades of efforts by progressives and realists to make these weapons off limits.
The Obama administration has taken a cautious, pragmatic approach to the civil war in Syria so far, refusing to be dragged into an increasingly messy proxy war with few good outcomes that has already resulted in nearly 93,000 deaths. But President Barack Obama has made clear that the use of chemical weapons constituted a red line that would change his calculus of the risks and rewards of action in Syria. Now we have confirmation that President Assad has crossed that line.
According to Rhodes, President Assad’s decision to violate international norms and use chemical weapons has already changed President Obama’s calculus. Yesterday’s announcement has already led to an expansion in the scope and scale of U.S. support to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Supreme Joint Military Command, or SMC—the overarching political and military bodies of the opposition—since the first reports of chemical-weapons use in April. Rhodes stated that the new aid will have “direct military purposes,” and a report by The New York Times says the United States will now start supplying small arms and ammunition to rebel brigades, a longstanding request of SMC chief of staff Gen. Salim Idriss.
The provision of arms and greater materiel support will likely bolster rebel fighters and slow or potentially reverse the recent gains made by the Syrian military backed by Hezbollah fighters in Qusayr and Aleppo. It also sends an important message to the Assad regime and its allies Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia about the U.S. commitment to the opposition.
That being said, directly supplying arms to the opposition is unlikely to significantly alter the overall stalemate between the rebels and the regime. The decision to arm the fractured and ideologically disparate opposition carries serious risks and unknown consequences, but the threat posed by the proliferation of these weapons may now be smaller than the risk of the Syrian military’s continued advance into northern population centers. Furthermore, the United States has already been aiding efforts by our allies such as Turkey and several Arab countries to arm the Syria opposition. This week’s announcement is largely a tactical shift in the U.S. role from a logistics coordinator to a direct supplier.
Amid the chaos within Syria, the Obama administration said it is comfortable and confident working with Gen. Idriss and the SMC as partners. It is unclear, however, if the supply of arms will give the SMC much-needed legitimacy and authority among local brigades, or if the lack of cohesion within the armed opposition will instead be exacerbated by competition for the new resources. It is important to note that the SMC is not a military force in its own right but is instead an umbrella network for the hundreds of armed militias operating within Syria. And as the Center for American Progress has noted, the SMC’s ability to manage and direct the in-country militias has been limited—the SMC has not been able to establish a formal chain of command within the opposition, nor has it been able to coordinate a cohesive national military strategy.
Furthermore, arming the Syrian rebels does not directly address yesterday’s revelation of chemical-weapons use by the Assad regime. As CAP recommended in April, the United States should engage with our allies in NATO and in the region to prepare a direct response that precludes further chemical-weapons use, potentially targeting military assets such as delivery systems, logistics, and appropriate command and control. The Obama administration has rightly shared the new evidence of Syrian chemical-weapons use with its allies, as well as key backers of the regime such as Russia. President Obama should use the G-8 summit next week in North Ireland as an opportunity to shore up diplomatic support for such an operation.
We cannot be certain of the ultimate effect of the Assad regime’s decision to use sarin gas against its own people, nor the Obama administration’s reported decision to arm the opposition. But we can be certain that the civil war will remain bloody for the foreseeable future, resulting in more civilian casualties, more internally displaced persons, and more refugees. As such, the United States needs to do more to establish a full-throated multinational relief mission for the 1.6 million Syrian refugees scattered across Syria’s neighbors—Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.
One of the United States’s core priorities is to prevent the destabilization of key regional pillars such as Turkey and Jordan, and refugee relief is the one place where a significantly larger U.S. footprint has unequivocally positive effects with few risks. A more robust, coordinated international response to the refugee crisis led by the United States and financially backed by the Gulf Arab nations should be near the top of President Obama’s G-8 agenda next week.
The crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime in its use of chemical weapons, the recent gains in Qusayr and Aleppo by the Syrian military backed by Hezbollah fighters, and the Obama administration’s decision to directly arm the Syrian opposition all raise the stakes of the situation in Syria. This war is far from over, but the conflict has officially entered a new phase, given the recent tactical shift by the United States.
Ken Sofer is a Research Associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.