US to increase military support to Syria rebels

Obama’s administration has finally pledged its weaponry support to bolster Syrian rebels to fight Assad.

US President Barrack Obama’s administration has finally pledged its weaponry support to bolster Syrian rebels to fight Assad. Picture: CNN

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT - President Barack Obama has authorised sending US weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time, a US official said on Thursday after the White House said it has proof the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against opposition forces fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The US decision came as Assad's surging forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies turned their guns on the north, fighting near the northern city of Aleppo and bombarding the central city of Homs after having seized the initiative by winning the open backing of Hezbollah last month and capturing the strategic town of Qusair last week.

Activists reported fighting in the area around Aleppo on Thursday near an airport that rebels have been trying to capture.

The White House said Washington would provide direct military support to the opposition but did not specify whether it would include lethal aid, which would mark a reversal of Obama's resistance to arming the rebels.

But the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the package would include weapons.

Syrian rebel and political opposition leaders immediately called for anti-aircraft and other sophisticated weaponry.

The arrival of thousands of seasoned, Iran-backed Hezbollah Shi'ite fighters to help Assad combat the mainly Sunni rebellion has shifted momentum in the two-year-old war, which the United Nations said on Thursday had killed at least 93,000 people.

The US and European officials anxious about the rapid change are meeting the commander of the main rebel fighting force, the Free Syrian Army, on Friday in Turkey. FSA chief Salim Idriss is expected to plead urgently for more help.

Obama has been more cautious than Britain and France, which forced the European Union this month to lift an embargo that had blocked weapons for the rebels.

After months of investigation, the White House on Thursday laid out its conclusions that chemical weapons were used by Assad's forces, but it stopped short of threatening specific actions in response to what Obama said would be a "game changer" for Washington's handling of the conflict.

"The president ... has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. "He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."

CHEMICAL WEAPONS ON A SMALL SCALE

"Our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year," Rhodes told reporters.

He said the US intelligence community had high confidence in the assessment and estimated that 100 to 150 people had died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

The US announcement followed deliberations between Obama and his national security aides as pressure mounted at home and abroad for more forceful action on the Syria conflict, including a sharp critique from former President Bill Clinton.

US Senator John McCain, who said he had been told by a reliable source that Washington would provide arms to the rebels, called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and said the United States needed to neutralize Assad's air power.

"They (rebels) have enough light weapons. They've got enough AK-47s. AK-47s don't do very well against tanks," McCain told CNN. "They need anti-tank weapons and they need anti-air weapons."

Western governments that predicted months ago that Assad would soon fall now believe that support from Tehran and Hezbollah are giving him the upper hand. But they also worry that sending arms to rebel fighters could empower Sunni Islamist insurgents who have pledged their loyalty to al Qaeda.

Britain and France are yet to announce their own decisions to start arming the rebels, their diplomats have been making the case that the best way to counter both threats is to beef up support for Idriss' mainstream rebel force.

France in particular has developed good relations with Idriss while providing funds and non-lethal support, and seems eager to send him military aid.

Assad's government says its next move will be to recapture Aleppo in the north, Syria's biggest city and commercial hub, which has been divided since last year when advancing rebels seized most of the countryside around it.

The United Nations, which raised its death toll for the war to 93,000 on Thursday, said it was concerned about the fate of residents if a new offensive is launched.

Hezbollah's participation has deepened the sectarian character of the war, with Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, backed by Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, while Sunni-ruled Arab states and Turkey back the rebels.

Leading Sunni Muslim clerics met in Cairo on Thursday and issued a call to jihad against Assad and his allies on Thursday, condemning the conflict as a "war on Islam.