Syria Update: Implications of Chemical Weapon Use on U.S. Aid Decision


On April 25, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed that the United States had evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime, albeit with “varying degrees of confidence” [i]. Though official U.S. sources have not described the method of exposure and how it was used, they have stated that sarin is being used on a small scale. This has called Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria into question, especially as the rebel opposition calls for more assistance beyond the non-lethal aid pledged by Secretary of State John Kerry.  While Western powers take further action to aid the rebels by non-lethal means, including the European Union’s recent decision to ease oil restrictions on rebel-held areas, the Syrian regime continues to escalate its use of deadly force. Senior officials have stated that the U.S. government “is preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition,” though the Pentagon has denied the report [ii].  If anything, Washington might at the very least be changing its rhetoric to reflect the use of chemical weapons, which will alter the course of the discussion over aid to the opposition and commitments that were expressed at the Friends of Syria meeting on April 20, 2013.

The Group of Friends of the Syrian People met for the sixth time on April 20, with 11 countries in attendance to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. While some limited progress was made, not all of those present walked away with a feeling of accomplishment. Though the U.S. increased its pledge of non-lethal aid to the rebel opposition, rebel leaders are frustrated with what they feel is a lack of international support. At its height during the December 2012 meeting in Marrakesh, the Friends of Syria collective drew an audience of over 100 members, with numerous countries pledging to support the Syrian opposition [iii]. The December meeting concluded with the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and receiving pledges of over $150 million in aid [iv]. Yet, for the April 2013 meeting, attendance dropped to just 11 members, with only the U.S. pledging to increase support [v] [vi].

That Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not pledge any greater support to the SOC does not mean that these countries are not providing significant funding, but instead suggests that they have shifted their funding to direct operations on the ground, rather than passing it through the Coalition. 

The SOC has faced difficulties in structuring its distribution of support, and some opposition forces inside Syria, particularly armed forces, have preferred to use their own networks in accessing funding. This has created an uneven balance of power between SOC and forces operating on the ground. While it is in the long-term interests of foreign countries to work with the SOC and build a viable alternative government to Assad, many have preferred to work directly with these networks on the ground due to convenience and regional conflicts. The fraught rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that is playing out in Syria has at times created divergent interests, with the two groups funding competing factions [vii]. The reluctance of regional actors to work through the SOC as demonstrated during the Friends of Syria meeting shows that this pattern is likely to continue, with disparate sources of funding aiding in the fragmentation of the opposition.

The U.S. pledge of $123 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels includes body armor, night vision goggles, communications equipment, and armored vehicles. Although these supplies will aid the opposition, rebels fighting on the ground claim that it is not enough to significantly shift the current balance of power in their favor. It also does little to protect them from the Syrian regime’s air power – its most significant advantage and the area in which the rebels need the most help. Furthermore, it does not neutralize the threat of chemical warfare, against which the opposition cannot defend. One senior opposition figure bemoaned the fact that the Friends of Syria group has yet to authorize weapons shipments to the rebels. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he claimed that if SOC will not be granted the right to receive weapons shipments, then its leaders will not participate in further meetings with the Friends of Syria group [viii].

This increase in U.S. aid might be the result of domestic pressure, with greater calls for support coming from Congress. In the past few weeks, several bills have been proposed in Congress that urge the United States government to take action. The Syria Democratic Transition Act, announced by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), focuses on giving aid to victims of the Syrian conflict through direct assistance programs and fostering a democratic political transition. However, the bill reinforces the policy of non-lethal aid, assisting only those elements of the Syrian opposition that have been vetted and largely working through activist networks rather than with Syrian rebels [ix]. Another bill proposed by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) advocates giving limited lethal aid to Syrian rebels [x]. In arguing for the legislation, Engel claims that to arm certain factions of the rebel opposition would not only help end the crisis faster, but would be a promising start to Washington’s relations with a new Syrian government. The bill stresses that any faction given this aid would be vetted so as to avoid bolstering any groups the U.S. deems too radical.

Outside of these bills, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) have also written to the President to express their concern over the possible use of chemical weapons and to propose limited air strikes to cripple Syria’s air force and eliminate other potential targets, such as SCUD missile batteries [xi]. While a recent report has emerged that President Obama might be moving toward lethal arms shipments to aid opposition fighters, there has been no official confirmation that such plans are being acted upon.  If anything, we might expect to see a change in rhetoric from the White House, especially as Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Moscow on May 7 to meet with President Vladimir Putin.  A major change in U.S. policy towards Syria might require a more evident and conclusive use of chemical weapons by the regime.  Secretary Kerry, in a briefing to members of the House on April 26, confirmed that the Obama Administration was considering many options, including increased financial and diplomatic support [xii]. 

The evidence of use of chemical weapons in Syria changes the nature of the Syrian debate. The “red line” set forth by Obama in August of last year is now being challenged by both international and domestic confirmation of the use of sarin, a nerve agent [xiii]. Though the Obama administration was able to cite a “lack of conclusive evidence” before, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently confirmed that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons at least on a "small scale," although they are unable to confirm “how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” As Syria continues to refuse inspections by U.N. chemical weapons experts, the number of options to address by non-lethal means is slowly dwindling [xiv]. 

Another recent development that comes in the wake of the Friends of Syria meeting is the European Union’s decision to ease oil sanctions on Syria such that opposition held-areas will now be able to sell crude oil [xv]. Though Syria is not a large producer of oil worldwide, much of its income before the uprising came from oil exports. Most of Syria’s oil is concentrated in the northeastern province of al-Hasaka, a sparsely populated district mostly covered in desert. Government troops pulled out of the province to focus on more strategic urban areas, allowing the opposition to move in and take control.  However, this does not mean that al-Hasaka was left unscathed. During the course of the fighting (and perhaps even afterwards), it seems that many oil wells in the area were set aflame and destroyed, leaving the opposition little opportunity to use the wells to their advantage. According to Syrian state media, some wells were destroyed when rival rebel factions quarreled over which group should have access to them [xvi].

The easing of oil sanctions could help provide the grounds for economic sustainability in the future and allow SOC to begin rebuilding Syrian infrastructure in a way that is conducive to the growth of its fledging transitional government. To this end, the easing of the EU sanctions also allows European countries to invest in the Syrian Oil Industry as well as provide material and technological support.  As with all legislation regarding support for Syria, the resolution requires that all transactions must have the approval of SOC to ensure that funds do not go to the wrong parties.  SOC could use these measures to create a source of funds for eventual reconstruction and institution-building efforts; however, this does not help the opposition neutralize the present chemical threat.

Furthermore, this move might seem questionable in light of the fact that a majority of the wells do not seem to be in SOC hands.  Many, if not most, of the oil wells in al-Hasaka are controlled by local Kurdish Popular Protection Units, or YPG, which derive their strength from the large Kurdish population in Northern Syria [xvii].  If the EU were to follow through with investing in these oil wells, it might be seen as an attempt to strengthen the Kurdish minority within the Syrian opposition.  Further, it seems that some wells in the area surrounding Deir Ez-Zour to al-Hasaka’s south are controlled by Jabhat Nusra [xviii]. Thus, creating the basis for a possible revenue source could further fragment the opposition and cause infighting between different factions who desire control of the oil wells.

In order to secure these wells, the Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Brigadier General Salim Idriss announced that he will send 30,000 troops to Syria’s north [xix]. However, this may be problematic in terms of the FSA’s operational capacity and its already limited resources. To send troops to this area could have two consequences: first, this troop movement would take away from the FSA’s overall capabilities by drawing troops away from Damascus, where the opposition is hoping to consolidate gains; second, and perhaps most importantly, such a large force going into this area could spell further troubles between the FSA and other groups who also want control of the oil wells, such as the Kurdish Popular Protection Unit (YPG) or even Jabhat Nusra. Given the ever-increasing sectarian polarization occurring in Syria, this potential for infighting could lead to a much more bitter, violent, and prolonged conflict.

The confirmation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a major inflection. The reaction of the international community to Assad’s escalation will be a cue to the Syrian regime as to how far it can press against red lines. If the response is not strong enough, Assad will continue to increase the frequency and scope of chemical weapons attacks. Instead, if the international response is to increase aid to the opposition through such means as buying rebel oil, the effect could be a deepening rivalry among opposition groups instead of unification and long term enrichment.  If cleavages within the rebel opposition materialize and create conflict, the Syrian regime might use it as an opportunity to strike. Though there is no official confirmation, the report that Washington is considering lethal arms shipments indicates that the U.S. will be shifting its rhetoric, if not its policy.  Over the next few weeks, the Obama administration will be forced to make tough decisions regarding the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict and how to address the chemical weapons threat.


[i] Colum Lynch and Abigail Hauslohner, “U.N. chief urges Syria to allow inspections by chemical weapons experts,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2013

[ii] Stephanie Gaskell and Philip Ewing, “White House forward, backward on Syria,” Politico, April 30, 2013

[iii] Samia Nakhoul and Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syrian opposition says no longer needs foreign forces,” Reuters, December 13, 2012

[iv] Jill Dougherty, “Obama recognizes Syrian opposition coalition,” CNN, December 12, 2012.

[v] “FMs of Group of Friends of Syria convene in Istanbul,” Anadolu Agency, April 21, 2013

[vi] “Kerry says US to double non-lethal Syria aid,” Al Jazeera, April 21, 2013

[vii] Elizabeth O’Bagy, “The Free Syrian Army,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2013.

[viii] Mariam Karouny and Nick Tattersall, “Syria opposition voices frustration with international backers,” Reuters, April 20, 2013

[ix] Julian Pecquet, “Sens. Rubio, Casey step into Syria fray with bipartisan sanctions bill,” The Hill, March 19, 2013

[x] Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. House Democrat wants lethal aid for Syria rebels,” Reuters, March 17 2013

[xi] Michael McAuliff, “On Syria, John McCain, Carl Levin Urge Obama To Pursue 'Limited Military Options,'” Huffington Post, March 31, 2013

[xii] Jeremy Herb, “Pelosi: Time for ‘next step’ in Syria,” The Hill, April 26, 2013

[xiii] Matt Spetalnick and David Alexander, “Analysis: Crossing Obama's "red line" on Syria will require concrete proof,” Reuters, April 24, 2013

[xiv] Abby Ohlheiser, “Hagel: Syria Likely Used Chemical Weapons, in Violation of "Every Convention of Warfare,"” Slate, April 25, 2013

[xv] “EU eases Syria oil embargo to help opposition,” BBC, April 22, 2013

[xvi] “Syria says rebels set fire to three eastern oil wells,” Reuters, March 31, 2013

[xvii] Josh Wood, “Syria's Oil Resources Are a Source of Contention for Competing Groups,” The New York Times, March 20, 2013

[xviii] David Enders, “Nusra Front members in Syria have never masked al Qaida ties,” McClatchy, April 10, 2013

[xix] Joshua Landis, “How Chemical Weapons Could Change Strategy For Syria,” NPR, April 23, 2013   


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