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Obama to arm Syrian rebels

Updated at 11:52 p.m

Updated at 11:52 p.m

White House officials confirmed Thursday that the administration would send weapons and other aid to rebel Syrian forces after determining that leader Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against the opposition.

“Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the president has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks,” officials said in a statement.

President Obama had long warned of a “red line” involving the use of chemical weapons that, if crossed, would result in (unspecified) U.S. action. In late April, U.S. intelligence confirmed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against its own people. President Obama largely tabled proposals for increased U.S. intervention since then, calling for more evidence.

Thursday’s statement is the first definitive, public acknowledgement by the White House that Assad used chemical weapons in the country’s twenty-eight-month-old civil war.

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC. These efforts will increase going forward,” officials said in the statement.

President Obama's administration made repeated calls for Assad's removal from power in the months leading up to Thursday's statement, but had declined to intervene further. The opposition forces have been battling for Assad's ouster since his government opened fire on peaceful protesters in March 2011.

NBC News has confirmed that while establishing a limited no-fly zone in Syria is among the options under consideration, the administration has not decided to move forward on it at this point.

According to a United Nations report released Thursday, the death toll in Syria has reached nearly 93,000. That figure represents the total number of people killed between March 2011 and the end of April 2013, but the U.N. warned that it is likely a conservative count, with many deaths having gone unreported. It represents an increase of nearly 30,000 deaths since the last report was released in January 2013, covering the period through November 2012.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights found that at least 5,000 people have been killed in Syria each month since last July. The U.N. group also reported the deaths of more than 1,700 children under age 10 in the same time period.

Former President Bill Clinton, who shied away from publicly voicing his opinion on foreign affairs while his wife, Hillary Clinton, served as secretary of state, reportedly broke with President Obama Thursday on Syria policy. According to Politico, Clinton sided with Arizona Senator, and Obama’s onetime rival for the presidency, John McCain in saying that Obama should be more forceful in his support of the Syrian rebels.

In audio obtained by Politico from a closed-press event on behalf of the McCain Institute for International Leadership in New York Tuesday, Clinton remarked about the bloodshed in Syria, "Some people say, 'Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out.' I think that's a big mistake.” The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly oppose direct intervention in Syria. Just 15% of respondents said they favored U.S. military action, while only 11% said they supported arming the opposition forces.

McCain long favored augmenting U.S. support for the rebel forces, and after slipping into Syria to meet with opposition leaders in late May, he increased his calls for action.

"I agree with you about this," Clinton reportedly told McCain at the Tuesday event. "Sometimes it's just best to get caught trying, as long as you don't over-commit--like, as long as you don't make an improvident commitment.”

Since leaving office in 2000, Clinton has publicly expressed regret over not intervening in the 1994 humanitarian crisis in Rwanda that claimed 800,000 lives in less than two months and sent millions fleeing as refugees. Reports from Tuesday’s event do not indicate that Clinton made reference to the Rwandan crisis.

Clinton reportedly told McCain Tuesday, “If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is, ‘Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80%  of you were against it.’ You look like a total fool.”