After chemical deal with Assad, US walks line on arming rebels

Aid to include equipment to neutralize chemical agents such as sarin as the liquids are transferred, destroyed or used again.

Free Syrian Army fighters 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)
Free Syrian Army fighters 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)
WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama directed US agencies to deliver non-lethal aid to Syria on Monday, including equipment that would neutralize chemical agents such as sarin as the liquids are transferred, destroyed or once again used.
Under the authority of the Arms Export Control Act, Obama wrote in a memorandum to the secretary of state that the transfer of such materials “to prevent the preparation, use, or proliferation of Syria’s chemical weapons is essential to the national security interests of the United States.”
The equipment will be given to “vetted members of the Syrian opposition” and other international organizations directly involved in facilitating their transfer.
“This action will allow the US government to provide or license, where appropriate, certain non-lethal assistance inside or related to Syria,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement. “This action is part of long-standing and ongoing efforts to provide lifesaving chemical weapons-related assistance to people in need in Syria.”
The US did not provide gas masks or other chemical weapons-related equipment to rebels prior to the massive sarin attack in Ghouta on August 21, which killed over 1,400 civilians and led Obama to the brink of military engagement there.
Offensive equipment, in the form of light arms and munitions, was promised by the Obama administration to the Supreme Military Council after an initial determination last spring by US intelligence agencies revealed small-scale chemical weapons use by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Those shipments were first shipped last month, officials say.
“We are receiving now many kinds of support from our Americans friends. But I can’t talk in media about military support, excuse me please,” General Salim Idris, commander of the Syrian rebels, told PBS on Monday.
Assuring American viewers skeptical of the opposition, Idris added, “all other jihadist or extremist groups will not have any access to this kinds of support, and now we don’t share information with them, we don’t support them, we don’t give them ammunitions and weapons.”
Assad’s government accused Western powers on Tuesday of trying to wreck prospects for a negotiated settlement to the country’s conflict by supporting rebels with such aid and imposing preconditions on the peace process, which started in earnest last month after Russia and the US brokered an agreement to rid Syria of its massive chemical weapons stockpile.
The comments, highlighting the precariousness of any international mediation between Syria’s two warring parties, followed a meeting of foreign ministers from the US, France and Britain a day earlier.
They warned there would be consequences if Assad did not hand over Syria’s chemical weapons.
In the wake of a mass shooting in the US capital at a navy yard, and on the fifth anniversary of the start of the financial crisis of 2008, Obama spoke of Syria only briefly on Monday, underlining that his “number one” priority is and has always been rebuilding the nation’s economy, even throughout the Syrian crisis.
“We took an important step in that direction towards moving Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so that they can be destroyed,” Obama said. “And we’re not there yet. But if properly implemented, this agreement could end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but to the world.”
In Moscow, the foreign ministers of Russia and France voiced sharp disagreements over how to interpret findings released from the United Nations on Monday on the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta.
“We have very serious grounds to believe that this was a provocation,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters, as French envoy Laurent Fabius sat beside him.
“When you look at the amount of sarin gas used, the vectors, the techniques behind such an attack, as well as other aspects, it seems to leave no doubt that the regime is behind it,” Fabius said in response.
Human Rights Watch said rocket trajectories detailed in the UN report suggested they had been fired from a base belonging to the Republican Guard, run by Assad’s brother Maher.
Reuters contributed to this report.