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U.S. To Provide Military Support To Opposition In Syria


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The Obama administration has shifted policy on Syria with an announcement, last night, that it will step up support for rebels who've been losing ground in recent weeks. The White House says it will start providing direct military support to rebel commanders.

The decision was made after administration officials concluded that President Bashar al-Assad's government has been using chemical weapons in the conflict. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The White House says the Assad regime has used chemical weapons - including sarin gas - multiple times in the last year. The U.S. believes that 100 to 150 people have died in such attacks. While that's a tiny portion of the more than 90,000 people that the U.N. says have been killed in Syria, a top White House official, Ben Rhodes, says chemical weapons use does cross President Obama's red line.

BEN RHODES: He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.

KELEMEN: Rhodes told reporters in a conference call that President Obama wants to help rebels become more effective, and will step up assistance to the Syrian Military Council - or SMC.

RHODES: 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.

KELEMEN: He wouldn't go into more detail, or say what weapons the U.S. might send. Up to now, the U.S. has offered only non-lethal aid.

RHODES: This is going to be different - in both scope and scale - in terms of what we are providing to the SMC, than what we have provided before.

KELEMEN: Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, says the move is long overdue, especially now that Assasd's forces - backed by Iran and Hezbollah - are gaining ground against the rebels.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: They are losing, and they're being massacred, and they are sustaining incredibly heavy casualties. It's terrible.

KELEMEN: McCain is urging the Obama administration not just to supply weapons.

MCCAIN: The Free Syrian Army need weapons and heavy weapons, to counter tanks and aircraft. They need a no-fly zone. And they - Bashar Assad's air assets have to be taken out and neutralized. And we can do that without risking a single American airplane. We can do it by cratering the runways with cruise missiles, moving the Patriot missiles closer to the border, and protecting a safe zone.

KELEMEN: White House officials say the U.S. has not decided on that option, though it remains on the table. Ben Rhodes says it would be complicated to set up a no-fly zone in Syria. And there does not seem to be much consensus on Capitol Hill about that, either. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, says this could be a slippery slope.

SEN. BOB CORKER: Once you begin that type of activity, you easily move into a mission creep. And I don't want to see that happen.

KELEMEN: But Corker told the Center for a New American Security earlier this week that he does think the U.S. needs to start arming rebels - carefully vetted ones, he adds. He says it's been clear for a while that the non-lethal aid just wasn't enough.

CORKER: I've sat down - as I know many in the room, I'm sure, have - with some of the Free Syrian rebels and - you know, they say, Corker, look - you know, these goggles y'all are sending are nice and, you know, these vests are pretty cool. But you know, at the end of the day, I really do think it's important - it's almost becoming symbolic, the lethal aid.

KELEMEN: But while the U.S. starts stepping up its assistance to the Syrian rebels, Secretary of State John Kerry has not given up hope that he and the Russians can get Syria's warring sides to the negotiating table in Geneva.

The White House says it has shared its information on chemical weapons use with the Kremlin, and President Obama is expected to meet President Vladimir Putin next week on the sidelines of a Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.

Michele Kelemen, NPR New, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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