The United States on Thursday confirmed that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people, ending weeks of uncertainty over precisely who had unleashed the deadly agents.
Evidence that chemical agents — likely sarin nerve gas — were used in Syria has existed for months, with France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Turkey all certain that they had been utilized under the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the opposition. The United States remained the lone hold-out in fully embracing that theory, citing a lack of certainty over the chain of custody of the evidence.
That uncertainty apparently no longer exists within the U.S. intelligence community. According to a statement from the White House, the intelligence community now with a high-degree of confidence “estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks.” The White House also indicated that the United States is “going to make decisions about further action on our own timeline.”
According to the New York Times, a Central Intelligence Agency report says that the United States has obtained “blood, urine and hair samples from two Syrian rebels” who were engaged in skirmishes with the Syrian government in mid-March. These samples, according to the report, support the conclusion that the Assad government used the sarin and still maintains control of their weapons stockpile.
President Obama has long called the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime a “red-line,” one that would be met with unspecified consequences if it were to be crossed. The determination that the line has been crossed has led to the Obama administration finally deciding to provide more and greater types of support to the Syrian rebels in their attempts to overthrow Assad.
On a call with reporters, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama has decided to give the rebels “military support,” but refused to directly say whether the U.S. had decided to arm Syria’s rebels, saying he was unable to detail every type of support the Syrian rebels will be receiving. Rhodes stressed, however, that this aid would be “responsive” to the requests of the Syrian Military Council and that it would be “substantively different” in “both scope and scale than what we have provided before.” The Obama administration has mulled arming the rebels for months now without pulling the trigger, instead insisting on only providing non-lethal aid.
The decision should be met with strong support from Congress, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently voted to approve the transfer of arms to the rebels. More contentious, however, is a military proposal that would enact a “partial No-Fly Zone” extending into Syria from the Jordanian border. This zone, according to the Wall Street Journal, could possibly extend as far as 25 miles into Syrian territory. Rhodes made clear, however, that no decision has been made yet to launch any military operation regarding Syria.
It’s less than clear how the public will respond to this news. Recent polls have showed that while a plurality of Americans support the use of force in the face of Assad using chemical weapons, they remain uncertain if not outright opposed towards military intervention in Syria more broadly.