Washington: President Barack Obama has authorised sending some US weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time as a part of a new package of military support to the opposition in the fight to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a source close to the matter said on Thursday.
There was no immediate word on the type of weaponry the United States would provide or when it would be delivered. The White House said earlier that Obama had approved direct military assistance to the beleaguered rebels but declined to give details or say whether any of it would be lethal equipment.
The US confirmed that Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria used chemical weapons against rebels on Thursday, a "red line" for action set by President Barack Obama.
Assad's forces used the nerve gas sarin on a "small scale" several times against the opposition, causing 100 to 150 deaths, Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters on a conference call.
Syrian rebel fighters belonging to the "Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan" battalion hold a position on June 13, 2013 in the southern Syrian town of Maaret al-Numan in front of the army base of Wadi Deif, down in the valley. At least 93,000 people, including over 6,500 children, have been killed in Syria's civil war, the United Nations said on June 13, 2013, warning that the true death toll could be far higher. AFP PHOTO DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS Photo: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS
The US was stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition, including aid that would have "direct military purposes on the ground," Mr Rhodes said, without elaborating. He refused to say whether that would include weapons.
"We're just not going to be able to lay out an inventory of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance," Mr Rhodes said. He said the US had "not made any decision to pursue" establishing a no-fly zone over Syria.
"We've prepared for many contingencies," he said.
Obama repeatedly has said the use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime would be a "red line" for the US. The administration has refrained from sending arms, in part because of concern that the weapons could make their way into the hands of Islamic radicals within the opposition.
Last week, Assad's regime captured the strategically located city of Qusair, giving government forces control of the road that leads from Damascus to Lebanon. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said Syrian forces had shifted their focus to the city of Homs, a rebel stronghold 30 kilometres north-east of Qusair.
In a move to increase support for the rebels, US on Wednesday waived restrictions on some exports to opposition-held areas of Syria to help people there survive and rebuild.
The confirmation that chemical weapons were used "adds an element of urgency" to helping the rebels, Mr Rhodes said.
The US has let other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supply weapons to the rebels and recently began an effort to channel all lethal aid through Idris in an effort to ensure that fewer weapons get into the hands of extremists. At the same time, the administration has pushed a plan to hold negotiations between rebels and the regime about a negotiated political transition that would have Assad step down.
The public confirmation came a day after top US national security officials met at the White House to discuss options that may include arming the Syrian rebels.
The Syrian rebellion will be a leading topic when Mr Obama and other world leaders meet next week at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. The group is composed of leaders from the US, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.