The government in Syria has used chemical weapons in that country’s civil war, killing at least 100 to 150 civilians, the White House said Thursday in an announcement that left unclear what the U.S. response would be.
Small-scale attacks using sarin, a potent nerve gas, have taken place as recently as late May, long after international attention had been drawn to the issue, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in a conference call. He cited intelligence on attacks in both Aleppo, in northern Syria, and in a neighborhood of Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The attacks have come from forces loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Rhodes said, rejecting the idea that the rebels have used chemical arms too.
“We have not seen any reliable reporting” that “the opposition has acquired or used chemical weapons,” he said.
The use of chemical weapons has “added an element of urgency” to the situation in Syria, Rhodes said, repeating President Obama’s statement that use of such weapons would cross a “red line.” But, he said, the U.S. would respond in a “deliberate manner.”
He turned aside suggestions by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others that the U.S. impose a “no-fly" zone in parts of Syria.
“There are huge costs associated with a no-fly zone,” Rhodes said, with no “clear guarantee that it would dramatically improve the situation on the ground.” In many parts of Syria, civilians and armed groups from opposing sides in the civil war are closely mingled, making an air operation “very hard” to implement, he added.
The administration does plan to step up its aid to the rebels fighting the government, Rhodes said. The aid would be “different in both scope and scale” from what the U.S. has already done, he added, but he left unclear whether that would involve providing arms to rebel groups.
“The president has made a decision about providing additional types of support” to the rebel Supreme Military Council, Rhodes said. But he did not provide details on the “types of that support.”
Obama plans to consult with allies on the issue at next week’s G-8 meeting in Ireland, Rhodes said.
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