US considers no-fly zone over Syria
Obama official says use of chemical weapons is a ’red line’ in the two-year-old civil war
A general view shows damaged buildings and debris in Deir al-Zor, June 13, 2013. Photograph: REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
A Free Syrian Army fighter wearing a gas mask, carries his weapons as he walks past a damaged tank, after seizing a government military camp used by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, near Idlib, yesterday. Photograph: REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof
The United States is considering a no-fly zone in Syria, potentially its first direct intervention into the two-year-old civil war, Western diplomats said today, after the White House said Syria had crossed a “red line” by using nerve gas.
After months of deliberation, President Barack Obama’s administration said yesterday it would now arm rebels, having obtained proof the Syrian government used chemical weapons against fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Two senior Western diplomats said Washington is looking into a no-fly zone close to Syria’s southern border with Jordan.
“Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Dr Assad’s opponents,” one diplomat said. He said it would be limited “time-wise and area-wise, possibly near the Jordanian border”.
Imposing a no-fly zone could require the United States to destroy Syria’s sophisticated Russian-built air defences, thrusting it into the war with the sort of action Nato used to help topple Muammar Gadafy in Libya two years ago.
Washington says it has not ruled out a no fly zone but has played down the prospect and said a decision is not “imminent”.
“We have not made any decision to pursue a military operation such as a no-fly zone,” US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
“A no-fly zone would carry with it great and open-ended costs for the United States and the international community.
“It’s far more complex to undertake the type of effort, for instance, in Syria than it was in Libya.”
Any such move would also come up against a potential veto from Dr Assad’s ally Russia in the UN Security Council.
The Kremlin dismissed US evidence of Dr Assad’s use of nerve gas.
“I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing,” President Vladimir Putin’s senior foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov said.
France said a no-fly zone would be impossible without UN Security Council authorisation, which made it unlikely for now.
Nevertheless, Washington has quietly taken steps that would make it easier, moving Patriot surface-to-air missiles, war planes and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan, officially as part of an annual exercise in the past week but making clear that the assets could stay on when the war games are over.
Syria’s civil war grew out of protests that swept across the Arab world in 2011, becoming by far the deadliest of those uprisings and the most difficult to resolve, with powers across the Middle East squaring off on sectarian lines.
Western countries have spent the past two years demanding Dr Assad leave power but declining to use force as they did in Libya, because of the far greater risk of fighting a much stronger country that straddles sectarian divides at the heart of the Middle East and is backed by Iran and Russia.