GLOBALPOST LIVE BLOG: US TO ARM SYRIA REBELS
UPDATE: 6/14/13 5:00 PM ET
This live blog is now closed. Please check here for recent developments.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 4:45 PM ET
Too little, too late?
Syrian rebels on Friday called the latest moves by the US a "late step" which would largely be "meaningless."
"We welcome the decision, but it is a late step. And if they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference?" said Louay al-Mokdad, the political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, according to The Washington Post. "They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone."
The Atlantic's national correspondent, Jeffrey Goldberg, argued that small arms at this point would not alter the balance of power.
"Even if handguns and rifles are all that the rebels would need for victory, delivering such weapons isn’t simply a matter of driving trucks into Aleppo. It will take time to build a proper pipeline to “vetted” rebels, which is to say, rebels who promise not to one day kill Americans with these weapons. Anti-tank weapons may be of help, but at the moment these don’t appear to be forthcoming, and portable surface-to-air missiles will most definitely not be forthcoming."
There has been no official response from Israel over the US announcement, with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu saying he would not take sides.
However, Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog, a reserve officer and former chief of staff to Israel's defense minister, said, "I fear it is too little, too late."
"There are still some moderate groups in the Syrian Free Army," he said. "But less every day."
In Syria, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. So who are the men the United States is worried about? GlobalPost went inside Syria to talk to them, including a top leader of Jabhat al-Nusra.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 3:00 PM ET
Iran rejects US claims
Iran's ambassador to Syria, Mohamad Shibani, rejected Washington's claims of chemical weapons use and plans to arm the opposition.
"Does the opposition need weapons that it already has? These weapons destroyed the country. There is no use of armament. It is a destruction of Syria and causes pain to Syrian people. If they want to support Syrian people they will have to emphasise a political solution," he said, according to Reuters.
Iran, which is currently holding elections to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reportedly stepped up its military support of Assad.
Western officials told Reuters in March that Iranian weapons poured into Syria from Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon.
"A Western intelligence report seen by Reuters in September said Iran was using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to aid Assad."
"The Iranians really are supporting massively the regime," a senior Western diplomat said in March. "They have been increasing their support for the last three, four months through Iraq's airspace and now trucks. And the Iraqis really are looking the other way."
In September 2012, GlobalPost looked at the allegations that Iranian drones were making their way into Syria. Read the full story: "Iran's support for Syrian regime raises questions of legality"
UPDATE: 6/14/13 2:30 PM ET
Iraq getting drawn into Syria
Sectarian violence has been on the rise in Iraq, and signs indicate that the Syrian battleground may be spilling into Iraq.
The Associated Press wrote earlier this week:
"Iraqi border posts along the Syrian frontier are coming under attack, and Syrian truck drivers have been singled out and shot inside Iraq. Syrian soldiers earlier this year sought refuge across the border, only to be massacred by Al Qaeda."
GlobalPost reported on this spillover in November 2012, following Sunni militants who worked with Islamists among the Syrian rebels, and Iraqi Shia fighters who joined forces with Assad's troops.
“People ask me why a Sunni Iraqi is fighting in Syria and I have a simple answer: 'I am fighting in Syria to liberate my country, Iraq, from the pro-Iranian Shiite militia,” said Abu Mohammed, 46, dressed in military fatigues, with a short greying beard, cigarette in one hand, sniper rifle in the other.
Abu Hamza al-Ta’ay said, “When the unrest began in Syria I was not interested in it, in the beginning. But later I and all Shiites began to see slogans (by protesters) such as ‘Not Iran nor Hezbollah. We want people who fear God.’ The protesters burned Iranian and Hezbollah flags. We saw them not as protesters, but as anti-Shiite.”
Read the full story: "The fight for Iraq plays out in Syria"
UPDATE: 6/14/13 2:00 PM ET
73 Syrian officers & families seek refuge in Turkey
Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency reported that 73 Syrian military officials and their families have sought refuge across the border in Turkey.
The Turkish agency reported that the group that arrived in Reyhanli totaled 202 people, including seven generals and 20 colonels.
They were reportedly taken to a Turkish refugee camp which houses military officers.
Turkey is now home 355,603 registered Syrian refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Turkey has edged closer to the Syrian war, with the influx of refugees, rebels operating on its soil and bombings in its cities.
GlobalPost's Tracey Shelton, who has reported from inside Syria in the past, filed this report from Reyhanli in May:
With the border areas serving as a smuggling, logistics and operational hub for Syria’s disparate rebel groups, as well as a home for 350,000 refugees, Turkey has indeed long been involved in the conflict that began as a popular uprising in 2011. But it quickly morphed into a full-scale armed civil war.
In what was the first major incident of tension between the two sides, Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet off the Syrian coast — but that Turkey maintained was in international airspace — in June 2012. Turkey then called for an emergency session of NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the defense alliance to which it belongs, but no military action was taken.
Read the full story: "Analysis: Turkey edging closer to Syria war"
UPDATE: 6/14/13 12:40 PM ET
Moscow at odds
GlobalPost's Dan Peleschuk reports from Moscow:
Russia has long voiced its opposition to Western intervention in the Syrian crisis, which the UN estimates has claimed more than 90,000 lives, pitching it as a domestic conflict that would only worsen with outside involvement.
Moscow’s critics, meanwhile, have slammed what they say is Russian support for Assad through its earlier refusal to back UN sanctions against the regime. Russia’s billion-dollar arms contract with Damascus has also been the subject of intense dispute.
Most recently, Moscow has come under fire for its planned shipment of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. But Putin said recently that the missiles have not yet been delivered because of fear of disrupting the regional balance.
Read the full report: "Moscow rebukes US over Syria chemical weapons report"
This BBC graphic explains how the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles could aid Assad and make a no-fly zone harder to establish:
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) May 31, 2013
UPDATE: 6/14/13 12:30 PM ET
The weapons dilemma
Sen. McCain, a strong advocate for intervention in Syria, said Friday, "We need heavy weaponry. We need the kind that can counter tanks, and we need surface-to-air missiles."
Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, did not confirm which weapons would be sent (if any), but anonymous officials who spoke to The New York Times said small arms and ammunition were being considered.
Western powers have been reluctant to provide anti-aircraft or anti-tank weapons which Syrian rebels have asked for, fearful that they might fall into the hands of extremists fighting Assad's troops.
"It's not possible to say that we can be 100 percent sure about where the weapons go," said a Western diplomat, according to Reuters. "But the risks of porosity are less than the risks of doing nothing."
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey already supply the Syrian opposition with weapons.
Since lifting a European Union arms embargo, France and Britain can also technically arm the rebels.
Reuters reported that France has been looking into ways to track weapons provided to the rebels, either through global positioning systems or time limits on their use.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 11:30 AM ET
What does 93,000 compare to?
How can you comprehend a staggering death toll number like 93,000? Here are some comparisons:
UPDATE: 6/14/13 11:20 AM ET
Cognitive dissonance between US public and politicians
A recent poll conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed that the American public is pretty opposed to US involvement in Syria.
Only 15 percent of those polled said they would favor US military action, while a mere 11 percent said the US should provide weapons to the opposition.
A higher number, 42 percent, said aid should only remain humanitarian, while 24 percent, believed the US shouldn't take any action at all.
The poll numbers are in sharp contrast to the views of former President Bill Clinton and Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
In a statement Friday, McCain and Graham said, "A decision to provide lethal assistance, especially ammunition and heavy weapons, to opposition forces in Syria is long overdue, and we hope the president will take this urgently needed step."
They also said providing arms was not enough, urging military action in Syria.
McCain, a strong advocate for intervention, snuck into Syria in May. He was later criticized for taking a picture with rebels, one of whom is an alleged kidnapper.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 28, 2013
While speaking on Fox News, McCain used harsher language, saying, "It’s disgraceful, the conduct of the United States sitting by and watching this happen."
Politico reported Wednesday that Clinton agreed with McCain's thoughts on intervention.
"Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake," he reportedly said.
According to The Daily Beast, which also had a recording from the event, Clinton said, "If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is, ‘Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ You look like a total fool."
Officially, Clinton said on Friday, "It looks to me like this thing is trending in the right direction," while speaking on MSNBC.
"I think on balance this should be seen as a positive story, that America has information now about the chemical attacks, they clearly know that there are other outside powers trying to shore up Assad and his repressive tactics."
UPDATE: 6/14/13 10:50 AM ET
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the White House's "clear" statement on chemical weapons use in Syria and called on Damascus to allow the UN to investigate the claims.
Russia, one of the Assad regime's staunchest allies, called Washington's claims "unconvincing."
Yuri Ushakov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said, "The Americans tried to show us information about the Assad's regime using chemical weapons. But if I have to be direct, what we saw does not look convincing to us," according to state news agency RIA Novosti.
A senior Russian lawmaker compared the US' chemical weapons assertions to evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq presented before the United States' assault on Saddam Hussein's government.
America's ally, Britain, welcomed the assessment. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the UK agreed with the US and added that an urgent response would be discussed at the G8 summit next week.
A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was still against "further militarization" of the Syrian civil war, adding that Syrians needed peace, not more weapons.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 9:25 AM ET
Arming the rebels: A catch-22?
US officials who spoke to The Wall Street Journal said the issue of providing military aid to the rebels had divided Obama's national security team, but "the administration faced little choice other than to step up its support or risk watching as rebels lose still more ground to a resurgent Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and soldiers from the militant Hezbollah group."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army has made significant gains in the past few weeks with the aid of Hezbollah, taking the strategic town of Qusayr back from the rebels, and also capturing the passage that leads to the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Recent reports suggesting that regime troops are planning a massive assault on Syria's largest city Aleppo, and the United Nations' latest figures on the Syrian death toll — a staggering 93,000 — lend urgency to the administration's plans to aid rebels.
However, the decision is complicated by fears that the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Earlier this week, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that civilians were among 60 residents killed in an eastern Syrian town by rebels. The rebels behind the bloodshed are thought to be from Jabhat al-Nusra affiliated with Al Qaeda.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 9:00 AM ET
Crossing the red line
President Barack Obama repeatedly said in the past that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a red line, a game changer, which if crossed would prompt further action on the part of the United States.
Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Obama's line, saying earlier this month, "Make no mistake whatsoever, the president’s red line is real, the president said it would be a game changer."
Thursday's statement from the White House was the first definitive statement on that red line being crossed.
Britain and France informed the United Nations as early as April that they had found credible evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.
However, the United States refrained from making a statement, with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, telling the Senate that the claims were still being evaluated.
Ascertaining the use of chemical weapon use is extremely difficult, especially with the UN being denied access to Syria. GlobalPost reported on one particular incident which was suspected to be a chemical weapons attack but wasn't.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 8:50 AM ET
Syria slams Washington's claims as 'lies'
The Syrian government responded to the Obama administration's claims of chemical weapons use as "lies" based on "fabricated information."
"The White House published a statement full of lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, based on fabricated information, through which it is trying to hold the Syrian government responsible for such use," Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a foreign ministry official as saying.
The official added, "The American decision to arm armed terrorist groups demonstrates... the direct involvement of the United States in the Syrian bloodbath," and questioned the United States' commitment to finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
UPDATE: 6/14/13 8:30 AM ET
White House confirms use of chemical weapons
Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, released a statement on the use of chemical weapons. The key excerpt is:
"Following a deliberative review, 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. Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information. The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete.
"While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades. We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons. We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons."
Rhodes said on Thursday, "The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition. That will involve providing direct support to the SMC. That includes military support."
The New York Times said one of the options for the Obama administration could include supplying rebels with small arms and ammunition, citing anonymous officials.
US officials told The Wall Street Journal that another part of the proposal for supporting the Syrian opposition includes a limited no-fly zone in Syrian airspace that would be enforced by US and allied planes.