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Obama's Syria Policy a Mess

8:01 AM, Jun 15, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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Thursday the White House announced that the American intelligence community assesses, with a level of high confidence, that the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against the opposition multiple times, in a limited fashion. Now that it is clear Assad has crossed the Obama red line by using chemical weapons, the question is, has this changed the president’s “calculus,” as he said it might? The media is reporting that it has. According to the press, Obama has decided to arm the opposition.

Barack Obama delivers inaugural address 1-20-09 090120-A-8725H-285

The White House, writes the New York Times, will “begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.” USA Today concurs, quoting an unnamed official “knowledgeable about the plans” who “confirmed to USA TODAY that the new assistance would include arming the rebels.” The Wall Street Journal explains that “Obama issued a “classified order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies.”

However, there are other administration officials who tell the press that the White House is not going to send weapons to the opposition. Josh Rogin at the Daily Beast writes that his source “says that lethal arms are not part of the new items Obama has now authorized.” “The president,” says this official, “has made a decision to provide the Syrian opposition with military items that can increase their effectiveness on the ground, but at this point it does not include things like guns and bullets.”

So is the White House arming the rebels or not? There’s been confusion since Thursday afternoon when Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor that Obama “will announce that we will be assisting the Syrian rebels by providing them with weapons and other assistance. I applaud the president’s decision.” Shortly after, McCain retracted his remarks, explaining that “the president has not made the final decision on arming.” Afterward, McCain’s spokesman, Josh Rogin reported, said the senator had been told by reliable sources that Obama was planning to arm the rebels.

A White House conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon hardly clarified matters. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes was asked several times whether the White House intended to arm the rebels, or if it was just going to provide more of the direct non-lethal military assistance (like vehicles and night-vision goggles) that was promised in April but still hasn’t reached the Syrian Military Council. “I can’t go through an inventory of the type of assistance that we’re going to provide,” said Rhodes. “But suffice it to say it’s going to be substantively different from what we were providing certainly before our initial [chemical weapons] assessment in April.” Responding to another request for details, Rhodes said, “I’m not going to be able to inventory the types of support that we’re going to provide to the SMC.” Later there was more of the same: “We’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory,” said Rhodes, “of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance other than to communicate that we have made that decision.”

What we know then from the administration’s public and on the record statements is this: the White House is going to do more than what it was doing before. But we don’t know if that includes weapons or just more non-lethal aid and equipment because the White House’s point man for strategic communications won’t say—he can’t inventory—what’s being sent. All of the reporting asserting that the administration is sending arms was sourced not to Rhodes’s public remarks but to officials who because they are unnamed have no reason to fear that their credibility is on the line should their information prove inaccurate or false. 

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