After the United Nations confirmed on Monday what pretty much everyone in the world already believed — that the Syrian government use sarin gas in a chemical weapons attack against rebels staging an armed uprising on Aug. 21 — President Barack Obama yesterday announced that he would set aside a provision of the 1978 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) that prevents shipping military supplies to nations that support terrorism.
The point is to get equipment to Syrian rebels to protect them from future chemical attacks, even though the Syrian government has agreed to eliminate its chemical stockpiles.
The process of how to achieve the removal is still fuzzy, however, and the Syrian military itself would be in charge of securing the chemical stockpiles, so the threat of further chemical attacks still looms.
“This action will allow the U.S. Government to provide ... where appropriate, certain non-lethal assistance inside or related to Syria,” said National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.
Obama’s order, which Hayden said has been in the works since before the Aug. 21 attacks, allows shipment of gas masks and other anti-chemical gear to certain Syrian opposition groups that would first be “vetted” members of the Syrian opposition, including international aide groups and the rebels’ Supreme Military Council.
The State Department first designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979. The Syrian government has a history of supporting various terror groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
The AECA generally even prevents shipment of non-lethal, defensive chemical warfare gear to any such country. But now, with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under siege from rebel forces and responding with chemical attacks, the Obama administration deemed it to be in the United States national security interest to get protective equipment into the country.
The president can waive parts of the AECA if doing so serves the cause of U.S. national security interests.
The announcement caused something of a panic on right-wing web sites, after the conservative Washington Examiner web site ran a story that seemed to imply that the U.S. would now be sending arms to al-Qaeda-linked terror groups inside Syria.
Sources: The Hill, ABC News, NBC News, Washington Examiner, Council on Foreign Relations, Federation of American Scientists