US to arm Syrian rebels after chemical weapons ‘red line’ is crossed

After determining that President Bashir al Assad’s regime crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons, the Obama administration has decided to increase aid to Syrian rebels who have supported al Qaeda’s affiliate in the past. The US is also considering establishing a no-fly zone along the Jordanian border.

The announcement that aid, including unspecified military support, would be increased to the Syrian Opposition Coalition and its military command, the Supreme Military Council, was made yesterday by Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

“The president has been clear that the use of chemical weapons — or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups — is a red line for the US,” Rhodes said, according to the BBC.

“Our intelligence community now has a high confidence assessment that chemical weapons have been used on a small scale by the Assad regime in Syria. The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” he continued. An estimated 100 to 150 people are thought to have been killed in chemical attacks, which are believed to have included the use of the deadly nerve gas sarin.

The US is “comfortable” supporting Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Council, which includes the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a political organization that opposes the Assad government.

Rhodes claimed that providing military aid to the Supreme Military Council and the Syrian Opposition Coalition will allow the West to help “isolate” the Al Nusrah Front and other jihadist groups that are prevalent on the Syrian battlefield, despite the fact that both the Council and the Coalition have backed jihadist groups in Syria.

“It’s been important to work through them while aiming to isolate some of the more extremist elements of the opposition, such as Al Nusrah,” he said.

Additionally, unnamed diplomats have indicated that the US may establish a no-fly zone along the border with Jordan, Reuters reported.

Top Syrian rebel leaders have supported the Al Nusrah Front

In the past, senior leaders in both the Supreme Military Council and the Syrian Opposition Coalition have professed support for the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Elements of the Free Syrian Army, which falls under the command of the Supreme Military Council, fight alongside and often under the command of the Al Nusrah Front, which was estimated by the US government at the beginning of this year to have over 10,000 fighters. More than 3,000 fighters from the Free Syrian Army are estimated to have defected to the Al Nusrah Front as of mid-May.

Colonel Riyad al Assad, the founder of the Free Syrian Army and one of its top commanders, has welcomed the Al Nusrah Front on the battlefield and has described the group as “our brothers in Islam.” Riyad made the statements in an undated video that was uploaded on YouTube in March.

“We have offered martyrs and other things and, accordingly, nobody should blame us for this matter,” he said. “The Al Nusrah Front has proved that it is proficient in fighting and has treated the people very nicely.”

Riyad then said that the Al Nusrah Front “thus far have not done anything wrong to anybody,” disregarding the facts that the group has executed suicide attacks that have killed civilians and enforces a harsh form of sharia, or Islamic law, in areas under its control.

“They might have some ideological thoughts over which we differ, but the majority of the people are looking with admiration toward the Al Nusrah Front,” he continued.

Ahmed Moaz al Khatib, the former president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition who resigned in April, also expressed support for the Al Nusrah Front. Just one day after the US added the Al Nusrah Front to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, al Khatib urged the US to drop the designation, citing “ideological and political differences.”

“The decision to blacklist one of the groups fighting the regime as a terrorist organization must be re-examined,” al Khatib said.

“We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal: to overthrow the criminal regime” of President Bashar al-Assad, al Khatib continued.

Syrian rebels are seeking heavy weapons, including shoulder-fired surface to air missles and antitank missiles, to fight the Syrian military.

Idris, the head of the Syrian Military Council, recently asked the US to supply “200 Russian-made Konkurs antitank missiles and 100 shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons … 300,000 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, 100,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, 50,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition and high resolution satellite imagery,” to aid in the defense of the city of Aleppo, The Wall Street Journal reported on June 11.

The Al Nusrah Front, with the support of other Syrian rebel groups, has imposed sharia, or Islamic law, in Aleppo. On June 9, Islamists in Aleppo publicly executed a 15-year-old boy for supposedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.

Tags: , , ,

17 Comments

  • Matt Dubuque says:

    Thanks Bill.
    You state that Aleppo is currently under the control of the al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusrah.
    In the ISLAMIC CIVIL WAR, Hezbollah has been stating that the next battleground is Aleppo.
    I’m not at all convinced that ALL of our support should go the forces of al Qaeda in that forthcoming battle.
    HAVE WE FORGOTTEN what al Qaeda did?
    Remember 9/11!

  • gb says:

    Direct military aid to America’s sworn enemies, who fly the Al Qaeda flag in battle. American tax payers dollars given to those that would saw our heads off given the opportunity. I hate politicians…

  • patricko says:

    I think this makes no sense unless it’s simply to prevent the Sunnis from being completely crushed. God forbid they should prevail and end up in possession of those same chemical weapons that BHO is so concerned about. I think the AQ guys would be more willing to use them than Assad was, and they will not hesitate to use them against Israel should that opportunity arise. The best scenario is an endless war of attrition on both sides until they run out of jihadists.

  • mike merlo says:

    Great news. Another mess just got messier. Hopefully the US strikes a ‘happy balance’ & provides just enough War Fighting Material to keep this conflict in play at least for a few more years or until there’s only 2 people left fighting each other.

  • popseal says:

    You can’t dance with the Devil and not acquire the stink of sulphur. Further, how is this consistent with gun control in America?

  • Matt says:

    I would have gone for at least 50 Strix mortars, 50 Hashim RPG 25, 50 MANPADS, 100 Barrett .50, 200, 300 Win Mag snipers rifles H S Precision. 300 claymore mines. 50 artillery pieces, 80 surplus mortars, ammo and parts to get what armor you have into action. 100,000 AK rounds, 10,000 RPG rounds, besides the Hashim, MANPADS, Strix rounds would be delivered on situational reports. 5,000 and 8,000 for the rifles. 50,000 for the artillery and another for the surplus mortars. And then you can deal with resupply as needed.

  • Mike says:

    Matt,
    They need several hundred 120mm mortar tubes, sevral hundred 107mm rocket launchers, sevaral thousand rpg launchers, and massive amounts of ordenance. The syrian army has pulled back into strong points throuout the country. These weapons will make them pay a high price for this tactic. They would put heavy pressure on the airfields as well. No manpads are required. Fire an forget soviet origine atw’s will make the syrian armies thin skinned tank forces extremely vulnerable. None of the systems pose a significant threat to the idf. Let hezbollah commit thousands of infantry into aleppo, they will be sustain heavy casualties in a city of 1.5 million. Quisera was a red herring, a town of 40,000 should have been pacified quickly. two weeks and probably hundreds of casualties sustained by hezbollah cadres. This has the potential to explode into 1000 plus casualties a day. Red on red. I would have preferred covert supplies, deny everything just like the arabs and iranians do systematically.

  • Bill S says:

    I think the trigger is less chemical weapons than that Hezbollah and Iran have entered the war on the side of Assad. It reminds me of the religious wars in Europe where the French, who were Catholic, ended up backing the German Protestants against the German Catholics, who were backed by Austria, a Catholic power. Ideology, nationalism and and battles over spheres of influence got inseparably confused and mixed together.
    Which leads to the big question: whose side are the Israelis on? It’s not an automatic given that they are going to follow the lead of the USA and EU. It will be interesting to see which way they end up jumping

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    Terrorists don’t mind a little sulfur smell.

  • M.H says:

    The free syrian army must learn from al- Qusayr battle and be prepared for the decisive Aleppo offensive. Since al-Nusrah is powerful in Aleppo, I am afraid the free syrian army will be forced to fight under al- Nusrah command.

  • Knighthawk says:

    Insanity. :double face palm:
    @mike merlo – Unlikely, but best possible outcome. 😉

  • gb says:

    @Matt, why? Why on earth would you give them anything at all? Unless it’s as Mike Merlo and others say to arm them up just enough to let them slaughter each other slowly..

  • Stephanie says:

    What a terrible idea. Basically we are going to be fighting on the same side as Al Qaida. Is this the Obama administration’s birthday present to Ayman al Zawahiri?
    That aside, I just read this article in our military newspaper this morning that it is even debatable in the first place whether or not Assad used chemical weapons. //www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/chemical-weapons-experts-still-skeptical-of-us-claim-that-syria-used-sarin-1.226144 Seems that the administration is the only one who thinks so. To be fair, we don’t know what they know with their classified intelligence, but I am still extremely EXTREMELY uncomfortable with getting involved in this.

  • mike merlo says:

    @Stephanie
    “classified intelligence” = borderline clueless -> soon to be followed by an Administrative Explanation covering every conceivable scenario & then some

  • Stephanie says:

    Mike Merlo,
    Yeah, I always try to believe the best, but I think you’re right, unfortunately.

  • mike merlo says:

    @Stephanie
    for a collection of reasons & excuses the Pentagon, the US Intelligence Community & those tasked to ‘assist’ from the various Branches of the US Gov’t continue to struggle & ‘fumble’ their way in their approaches & ‘dealings’ with the various Limited War Scenario’s

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis