President Barack Obama's authorization of military aid to the Syrian rebels "dramatically" increases U.S. support for the opposition, the White House said Friday, while acknowledging that it will take time for the supplies to reach fighters struggling in their clashes with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
U.S. officials said the new aid would include weapons and ammunition and comes in response to firmer evidence from the White House of chemical weapons use by Assad's regime.
"There's already material that's been flowing to the opposition and that will continue in the weeks to come," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line," suggesting greater American intervention. While a small percentage of the 93,000 people reportedly killed in Syria are said to have died from chemical weapons — U.S. intelligence puts the number at 100 to 150 — the White House views the deployment of the deadly agents as a flouting of international norms.
Rhodes said Obama made the decision to authorize military aid to the rebels over the past few weeks. He also defended the president's caution on the issue, saying "these are not steps the president takes lightly."
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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The full scope of the assistance authorized by the White House is still unclear. But the administration could give the rebels a range of weapons, including small arms, assault rifles, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles. The opposition forces could operate most of that equipment without significant training.
In Syria Friday, the Foreign Ministry said, "The White House has issued a statement full of lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria based on fabricated information. The United States is using cheap tactics to justify President Barack Obama's decision to arm the Syrian opposition."
And in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser said Russia not convinced with Washington's claim that Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against the opposition. Yuri Ushakov told reporters the information provided by U.S. officials to Russia "didn't look convincing."
Rhodes, in response to Ushakov's comments, said the U.S. had "very firm" evidence, including physiological samples of sarin use.
The commander of the main Western-backed rebel group fighting in Syria said he hoped that U.S. weapons will be in the hands of rebels in the near future, noting it would boost the spirits of the fighters on the ground. "We hope to have the weapons and ammunition that we need in the near future," Gen. Salim Idris told Al-Arabiya TV.
"This will surely reflect positively on the rebels' morale, which is high despite attempts by the regime, Hezbollah and Iran to show that their morale after the fall of Qusair deteriorated," he said, referring to the town near the border with Lebanon.
Obama's opposition to sending American troops into Syria makes it less likely the U.S. will provide sophisticated arms or anti-aircraft weapons that would require large-scale training. Administration officials are also worried about high-powered weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups. Hezbollah fighters are among those backing Assad's armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists back the rebellion.