The Cable

Red Lined: White House Says It Knows For Sure That Assad Used Chemical Weapons

President Obama's "red line" has been crossed, it appears. The White House declared on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in small doses against rebel forces -- and that America would begin to provide military aid to the opposition in response. The decision saddles the CIA with providing arms to vetted rebel fighters in the country.

"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," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a statement, noting that between 100-150 have been killed by chemical attacks in Syria. "The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."

He added in a conference call with reporters, "The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition that will involve providing direct support to the Supreme Military Council. That includes military support."

In recent months, the administration had been reluctant to declare the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and repeatedly redrew Obama's red line to make sure Assad didn't step over it. As far back as April, the U.S. intelligence community uncovered blood samples taken from multiple people that tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.

Whether the decision will vastly alter views on intervention in Congress is yet to be seen, but shortly after the announcement, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had previously opposed the shipment of U.S. arms to Syria, changed his mind. 

"It is now clear that the Assad regime has crossed a red line," he said in a statement. "I  support the President's decision to expand assistance for the vetted Syrian opposition, and I encourage the Administration to begin, in earnest, arming the Free Syrian Army." 

Members of Congress advocating for more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria immediately jumped on the news. "In using chemical weapons, #Assad committed a war crime against his own people," tweeted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). "What more does the civilized world need?"

In a statement, House Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), gave the president a backhanded compliment. "I am pleased that President Obama's Administration has joined the growing international chorus declaring that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons," reads the statement. "The United States should assist the Turks and our Arab League partners to create safe zones in Syria from which the U.S. and our allies can train, arm, and equip vetted opposition forces."

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, encouraged the president to openly lay out his position. "I want to urge the president to exercise leadership by ...  publicly make the case to the American people for arming moderate forces," Corker said. "Such an effort would embrace the approach passed overwhelmingly by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and would acknowledge the enormous risks for the U.S. and region from the worsening conflict, which could lead to an extremist takeover." 

In one of the more hawkish statements to emerge on Thursday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), voiced his support for a U.S. enforced no-fly zone over Syira. "I think its time we act in a very serious way, if a no-fly zone is what they've decided to do, I'm sure our military has taken the right preparations for carrying out a successful operation and I'll support that," said Chambliss when asked about reports the Pentagon is proposing a no-fly zone in Syria.

Both the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence directed inquiries  to the White House. 

So the question becomes: what's next? Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill to authorize the shipment of lethal weapons to the opposition by a vote of 15-3. While more hawkish lawmakers have advocated the establishment of a no fly zone, the Pentagon has demonstrated an institutional resistance to the plan, given the Assad regime's significant anti-aircraft defenses.

Meanwhile, public polling indicates an overwhelming opposition to intervene in the country. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 15 percent in the poll said they favor U.S. military action, and only 11 percent supported the shipment of arms to rebels. At the same time, President Obama faced pressure from President Bill Clinton this week, who said Obama risks looking like a "wuss" and a "fool" by not more aggressively intervening in the country. And that was before the White House confirmed that Assad had gone chemical.

Additional reporting by John Reed. 

The Cable

Syrian Rebel Commander Tells Allies: Aleppo Could Be The Next City to Fall

With regime-backed Hezbollah fighters advancing on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo following a swift victory over anti-government forces in Qusair last week, Brigadier General Salmi Idris, leader of the rebels' Supreme Military Council, placed an urgent phone call with Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) on Wednesday. "His voice just gave a real sense of urgency and concern" said Casey. "He said what happened in Qusair could happen in Aleppo." Idris apparently got the memo that now is the time to lobby Washington hardest on intervening more aggressively in Syria.

The rebels' defeat to Hezbollah fighters last week cost them a stronghold near the Lebanese border, which they had spent a year fortifying with mines, booby traps, and tunnels. Now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preparing an offensive on rebel-held Aleppo, According to reports on the ground, thousands of Alawites enlisted in pro-regime militia groups are headed to Aleppo. The loss of the city would be devastating to the rebels from a strategic standpoint.

Meanwhile, in Washington, an internal memorandum circulating inside the Obama administration says "the intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition mutilple times in the last year," according to the New York Times. The paper reports that Obama "now believes the proof is definitive," meaning the regime violated his own "red line." This comes as senior administration officials have said the decision of whether to arm Syrian rebels has dominated senior-level meetings in the last few days, which Secretary of State John Kerry postponed his trip to Israel to attend. Adding to the grist of Washington's "do-something" caucus, the United Nations revised its official death toll in Syria to 93,000 up from 80,000 in mid-May.

In his conversation with Casey, Idris "made very clear to me, they are in need of not just greater support, but very specific support: anti-tank weaponry and some kind of anti-aircraft weaponry," according to Casey. Speaking to his concerns about losing the rebel-held stronghold of Aleppo, Casey said Idris believed "there are 5,000 Hezbollah fighters prepared to advance on Aleppo with the help of the regime's air superiority."

Casey, of course, has been at the forefront of advocating for more military aid in Syria, authorizing a bill back in March that shaped a weapons bill that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a 15-3 vote in May. Other Democrats have similarly pressured the White House to act on Syria such as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ironically, one of the lawmakers providing the most cover for the administration's cautious approach to Syria is Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has warned repeatedly that militarizing the conflict could put weapons in the hands of extremist groups, such as the al Qaeda aligned al-Nusrah Front.

During his phone call with Idris, Casey said "I emphasized that we can not be seen as helping al Nusrah or any other extremist groups and Idris made it clear to me that he agrees." The Pentagon, meanwhile, has vacillated about whether it's logistically possible to keep weapons out the hands of extremists in a conflict involving a complex mix of opposition groups. The rebels -- and Casey -- may want the weapons. Getting them is another matter.