The Obama administration announced Thursday that it has determined that the Syrian government has deployed chemical weapons against opposition groups,
crossing what President Obama had called a "red line" and prompting him to
provide direct military aid of the Syrian opposition groups for the first time.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the president has decided to step up "military support" to the main opposition group, the Supreme Military Council, to bolster its effectiveness, but declined to "inventory" what equipment would be provided.
A government official knowledgeable about the plans confirmed to USA TODAY that the support would include arming the rebels. The official was not authorized to speak and did so on condition of anonymity.
The White House announcement comes ahead of next week's Group of Eight Summit in Northern Ireland, where the conflict in Syria is likely to be a focal point of discussion.
Russia, one of the G-8 member countries, has continued to back Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime despite pleas from the United States and international community to cease.
The White House has also expressed concerns that the situation is getting more dire in Syria as Hezbollah and Iran have stepped up involvement in the conflict in support of Assad.
"There is an urgency to the situation," Rhodes said. "There has been an urgency to the situation for two years. It's particularly urgent right now in terms of the situation on the ground, in some respect, because we have seen Hezbollah and Iran increase their own involvement."
Obama acknowledged in April that chemical weapons likely had been deployed, but further confirmation was needed before taking action. Obama had called the potential use of chemical weapons by Assad a "red line" that would spur more action by the United States.
The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date, a small fraction of the more than 90,000 that have been killed in the 2-year-old civil war.
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