President Obama’s "red line" has been crossed, it appears. The White House declared on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in small doses against rebel forces — and that America would begin to provide military aid to the opposition in response. The decision saddles the CIA with providing arms to vetted rebel fighters in the country.
"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," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a statement, noting that between 100-150 have been killed by chemical attacks in Syria. "The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."
He added in a conference call with reporters, "The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the Supreme Military Council. That includes military support."
In recent months, the administration had been reluctant to declare the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and repeatedly redrew Obama’s red line to make sure Assad didn’t step over it. As far back as April, the U.S. intelligence community uncovered blood samples taken from multiple people that tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.
Whether the decision will vastly alter views on intervention in Congress is yet to be seen, but shortly after the announcement, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had previously opposed the shipment of U.S. arms to Syria, changed his mind.
"It is now clear that the Assad regime has crossed a red line," he said in a statement. "I support the President’s decision to expand assistance for the vetted Syrian opposition, and I encourage the Administration to begin, in earnest, arming the Free Syrian Army."
Members of Congress advocating for more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria immediately jumped on the news. "In using chemical weapons, #Assad committed a war crime against his own people," tweeted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). "What more does the civilized world need?"
In a statement, House Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), gave the president a backhanded compliment. "I am pleased that President Obama’s Administration has joined the growing international chorus declaring that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons," reads the statement. "The United States should assist the Turks and our Arab League partners to create safe zones in Syria from which the U.S. and our allies can train, arm, and equip vetted opposition forces."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, encouraged the president to openly lay out his position. "I want to urge the president to exercise leadership by … publicly make the case to the American people for arming moderate forces," Corker said. "Such an effort would embrace the approach passed overwhelmingly by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and would acknowledge the enormous risks for the U.S. and region from the worsening conflict, which could lead to an extremist takeover."
In one of the more hawkish statements to emerge on Thursday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), voiced his support for a U.S. enforced no-fly zone over Syira. "I think its time we act in a very serious way, if a no-fly zone is what they’ve decided to do, I’m sure our military has taken the right preparations for carrying out a successful operation and I’ll support that," said Chambliss when asked about reports the Pentagon is proposing a no-fly zone in Syria.
Both the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence directed inquiries to the White House.
So the question becomes: what’s next? Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill to authorize the shipment of lethal weapons to the opposition by a vote of 15-3. While more hawkish lawmakers have advocated the establishment of a no fly zone, the Pentagon has demonstrated an institutional resistance to the plan, given the Assad regime’s significant anti-aircraft defenses.
Meanwhile, public polling indicates an overwhelming opposition to intervene in the country. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 15 percent in the poll said they favor U.S. military action, and only 11 percent supported the shipment of arms to rebels. At the same time, President Obama faced pressure from President Bill Clinton this week, who said Obama risks looking like a "wuss" and a "fool" by not more aggressively intervening in the country. And that was before the White House confirmed that Assad had gone chemical.
Additional reporting by John Reed.