Syrians React To U.S. Providing Military Aid To Rebels

The Obama administration has decided to provide more assistance to the Syrian opposition after officials became confident the Syrian regime was using chemical weapons against rebel forces.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The White House announced last night it will now give direct military aid to Syrian rebel forces. Administration officials say this follows intelligence assessments that indicate the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons repeatedly against opposition forces in the past year.

For more on what this means, we go to NPR's Deborah Amos, who is in Amman, Jordan. Deb, welcome.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: What is the reaction there to the Obama administration's change of policy?

AMOS: Let's talk about the rebels. For them, it's less unexpected. For them, it's an incremental shift because it's still not clear what weapons will now flow to the rebels. What they've been asking for is anti-tank and anti-aircraft to counter the regime. The administration has been very hesitant about heavy weapons to the rebels. But this is a shift, and they are welcoming it.

However, they are much more focused on this coming battle in the northern city of Aleppo. The regime has turned its guns on that northern city. They are backed by ally Hezbollah fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militia, and they are coming to Aleppo after a decisive victory against the rebels in the town of Qusair.

WERTHEIMER: What about Turkey? What about the other Arab states? Are they reacting to what has happened?

AMOS: I think that those reactions will come when the policy is more clear. They have been pushing the administration to take this position. Turkey is feeling particularly vulnerable. They have been supporting the rebels, thousands of refugees. The question is, does that mean that the battle goes on in a hotter way? Does this increase the pain inside Syria?

WERTHEIMER: Deb, for the first time, the Obama administration appears to conclude that the Assad government has used nerve gas against rebels and against civilians. Administration officials say this is a clear crossing of the red line. What does that mean?

AMOS: Well, what we are seeing now, for the first time, that the administration is in line with assessments in London and in Paris. The French have been far ahead of the administration on this issue. There were two French reporters who were on the ground, who said that they saw chemical weapons being used. They brought out samples. In fact, there's been a rift with the French over this issue.

Now, the Obama administration has been more forward in their assessments. They had been cautious. Government sources have been saying for some time that they did have this conclusive proof. Now that evidence has been made public, it's been shared with the Russians.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama is scheduled to meet Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, at a G-8 summit next week. Both countries are theoretically committed to a negotiated settlement in Syria. Does this new U.S. position change anything for those calculations?

AMOS: The Obama administration has repeatedly said that their preferred solution is a negotiated settlement, and they worked with the Russians on this. This is supposed to take place sometime this summer. Those calculations - at least, in Washington - were that as long as the rebels were pushing against the Assad regime, the Syrian president would be pressured to come to the table.

But these recent regime victories in Qusair, and now as they're marching on Aleppo, they've changed those calculations. So this announcement appears to be an attempt to recalibrate the balance of power on the ground, but still in the service of a negotiated settlement. That remains Washington's preferred solution.

WERTHEIMER: To sort of - an attempt to level the playing field, somehow?

AMOS: Indeed, although it is not clear if it will. These are not heavy weapons. And the rebels are up against a substantial force - not just the Syrian army, but Hezbollah from next door in Lebanon and, you know, the Russians are still sending in military equipment. The kind of thing that an army needs to work every day - ammunition, tank tracks. The Iranians are sending money. And so it is unclear if this announcement balances those forces at all.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Amman, Jordan.

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