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President Barack Obama on Monday formally cleared the way for the U.S. to send equipment and training to vetted Syrian rebels, enabling them to resist a chemical weapons attack, the White House said.
Obama issued a memorandum to Secretary of State John Kerry saying that such assistance “is essential to the national security interests of the United States.”
The announcement came in the aftermath of an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb. The U.S. and its allies say Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces were behind the attack and have placed the death toll at over 1,000, including hundreds of children.
The president’s decision to equip the rebels seems to indicate that U.S. officials worry Assad might be tempted to use chemical weapons against those fighting to oust him even as the U.S. and Russia work out a plan to place the Syrian arsenal under international control to be destroyed.
But U.S. officials underlined that the decision had been in the works before last month's slaughter.
The new aid might include “defensive chemical weapons-related training and personal protective equipment to select vetted members of the Syrian opposition, including the Supreme Military Council, to protect against the use of chemical weapons,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement explaining Obama’s decision. The aid is “nonlethal,” she noted.
Under Obama’s determination, U.S. assistance might also include “chemical weapons-related personal protective equipment to international organizations, including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for the conduct of their operations” under the Russia-U.S. plan.
It might also encompass “chemical weapons-related life-saving assistance for organizations implementing Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development programs to strengthen local Syrian health care providers’ ability to prepare for and respond to any use of chemical weapons.”
Hayden said Obama's decision "is part of longstanding and ongoing efforts to provide life-saving chemical weapons-related assistance to people in need in Syria."
"For approximately one year, the U.S. government has been working with (Syrian) first responders to develop contingency plans to help them to respond and protect themselves in the even of chemical weapons attacks," a senior administration official familiar with the planning told Yahoo News.
"We have also provided supplies and equipment for those responding to chemical weapons attacks and supplies to treat those affected by the attack,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
What kind of aid?
“In general terms, (chemical weapons) protection and security means strengthening preparedness and building local response capacity to help reduce injuries and deaths resulting from the potential use of chemical and biological hazards," the official said. "Possible items could include personal protective equipment, decontamination supplies, medical countermeasures and general site security equipment, as well as associated training.”