A top national security official revealed Thursday afternoon that U.S. intelligence services has made a "high-confidence assessment" that Syrian government forces -- and only those forces -- have used chemical weapons. According to Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops has used the deadly nerve agent sarin and other chemical weapons "on a small scale" multiple times over the past year.
The death toll of 100 to 150 Syrians from chemical weapons represents a tiny fraction of the more than 90,000 deaths from the conflict, Rhodes noted. "But as we’ve consistently said," he added, "the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses red lines that have existed in the international community for decades."
In short, Assad crossed the "red line" drawn by President Obama. So now what?
Rhodes said that the new assessment has led the administration to increase the amount and types of support given to rebels, both through the Syrian Opposition Coalition (the would-be opposition government) and the Supreme Military Council (its military wing). He was resolutely vague, though, about what sort of help the administration was giving to rebels. For example, he wouldn't give a direct "yes" or "no" answer to the question of whether we were now arming the rebels.
What he did say was that the United States is providing "military support" to the rebels in an effort to make them more effective and cohesive. As an illustration of the latter, he talked about communications and transportation equipment, which is usually considered "non-lethal" aid. He also pooh-poohed establishing a no-fly zone, saying it wouldn't necessarily improve the rebels' fortunes on the ground.
Does that seem like the right response? Some argue that the government's crackdown on the opposition has long justified far more forceful U.S. action. There's a strategic argument for intervention, too -- the United States needs to align itself with the rebels now if it hopes to have their support later for its anti-terrorism efforts. But others assert that, as we've seen in northern Africa, U.S. support for pro-democracy movements doesn't necessarily translate into democracies or even ruling coalitions that are sympathetic to the West. And under this view, what's going on in Syria isn't ethic cleansing a la Kosovo or Rwanda, it's a civil war. The United States can't rush in every time a dictator decides to crush a rebellion, regardless of how evil the dictator may be.
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