WASHINGTON — National Security Council deputy advisor Ben Rhodes announced Thursday that the United States believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria and that the U.S. is weighing further action, which may include military options.
The decision comes after two years of conflict that has claimed 90,000 Syrians and after the U.S. concluded that chemical weapons had been used by the Assad regime against its people, which President Obama had described as the "red line" that would cause the U.S. to intervene.
According to the New York Times, the intelligence community estimates that between 100 and 150 Syrians have died in chemical attacks.
"The president has made a decision" about what kind of additional support will be provided to the rebels, Rhodes said. It will be "direct support to the SMC [Supreme Military Command] that includes military support."
"We have not made any decision to pursue a military operation such as a no-fly zone," Rhodes said. The Wall Street Journal reported today that the military is proposing a no-fly zone.
"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 said. "The use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses red lines that have existed in the international community for decades.
Rhodes said "several allies" have already been briefed on the findings, as well as the United Nations and Russia.
Rhodes said the red line had been crossed.
"He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus and it has," he said. "We've prepared for many contingencies."
"We are going to make decisions about further actions on our own timeline," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the U.S. had already increased the "types" of support it has provided, which will now include direct assistance to the SMC, which "we are comfortable working with."
"I'm not going to be able to detail every single type of support we are providing, but suffice it to say that it is both the political and military opposition that is receiving U.S. assistance," Rhodes said. The new assistance will be different from what the U.S. has given before, Rhodes said, while remaining vague about the specifics.
Rhodes cited "potential military options" and described the current situation in Syria as "particularly urgent right now" as Hezbollah has helped the Syrian regime make critical gains on the rebels.
Before the conference call, Senator John McCain said that the administration had decided to arm the rebels while speaking on the Senate floor. Shortly afterwards, he said that the president had not yet made a decision.
McCain later released a joint statement with Senator Lindsey Graham which called for the rebels to be armed.
"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," the statement read.