US considering no-fly zone in Syria after deciding to arm opposition groups

Obama to give rebels direct military aid after regime crosses chemical weapon ‘red line’

A Free Syrian Army fighter is seen pointing his weapon in the old city of Aleppo. The US is likely to provide small arms and ammunition to Syrian opposition forces and could provide anti-tank weapons. Photograph: Reuters/Jalal al-Halabi/Shaam News Network

A Free Syrian Army fighter is seen pointing his weapon in the old city of Aleppo. The US is likely to provide small arms and ammunition to Syrian opposition forces and could provide anti-tank weapons. Photograph: Reuters/Jalal al-Halabi/Shaam News Network

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 01:00

The US is considering a no-fly zone in Syria, which would mark its first direct intervention in the two-year war after US president Barack Obama decided to arm opposition groups following months of deliberations.

A no-fly zone along Syria’s southern border with Jordan was being weighed by US officials after the White House said US intelligence believed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons, including the nerve gas sarin, against its people multiple times in the past year.

Syria dismissed the US claims as a “caravan of lies” while Russia, ally to the Assad regime, said evidence shown to it by the Americans about chemical weapons use was “unconvincing”.

The responses came as Mr Obama decided to give “direct military aid” to rebels seeking the overthrow of Dr Assad after Syria had stepped over the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons.


‘Urgent discussions’
The leaders of the Group of Eight countries will hold “urgent discussions” on the Syrian crisis when they meet at a summit in Co Fermanagh on Monday, British prime minister David Cameron said.

“What is clear today is there is a broader issue that in our world today there is a brutal dictator who is using chemical weapons under our nose . . . and what is important is that we work with our partners to do what we can to bring this to an end,” said Mr Cameron, who spoke to Mr Obama last night.

Syria’s foreign ministry said the US was resorting to “cheap tactics” to justify Mr Obama’s decision to arm opposition groups, the Supreme Military Council and Syrian Opposition Coalition. The White House had relied on “fabricated information” to hold the Syrians responsible, the ministry said.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr Obama, did not say how the rebels would be armed but that military aid would be “different in scope and scale to what we have provided before”.

US intelligence believed Dr Assad had used nerve gas sarin on a small scale against rebels multiple times over the past year, he said, estimating that as many as 150 people had died in the attacks.

The Obama administration was likely to provide small arms and ammunition and could provide anti-tank weapons, US media reported. The CIA is expected to co-ordinate the delivery of the weapons.

Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said the decision to arm rebels was “long overdue” but called for a no-fly zone to “degrade” Dr Assad’s ability to attack by air.

Earlier this week at a private talk, former US president Bill Clinton called the Obama administration’s decision not to intervene in Syria “a big mistake”.

Mr Cameron, insisting that the UK had “credible evidence” that the Assad regime had twice used sarin gas, said the rule of a brutal dictator must end.


‘Do more’
British foreign secretary William Hague said the international community must “do more” to stop the violence, pressure Dr Assad to negotiate seriously, and prevent the growth of extremism and terrorism.

The European Union said the assessment that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons underlined the need to immediately deploy a UN mission to verify the allegations.

While noting “with great concern” the statement from the White House, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the development reinforced the importance of finding a political solution.

“It is urgent to advance the political process, starting with the convening of the planned peace conference on Syria,” she said.

European foreign affairs ministers will discuss the situation in Syria in just under 10 days time at a scheduled meeting in Luxembourg.