The White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by the U.S. and other countries such as France and Great Britain, two administration officials told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
According to the report, the request was made shortly before Secretary of State John Kerry toured the Middle East last week to try and finalize plans for an early June conference between the Syrian regime and rebel leaders in Geneva. The opposition, however, has yet to confirm its attendance and is demanding that the end of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s rule be a precondition for negotiations, a condition Assad is unlikely to accept.
President Obama’s dual-track strategy of continuing to pursue a political solution to the two-year-old uprising in Syria while also preparing for more direct U.S. military involvement includes authorizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time to plan for multilateral military actions inside Syria, the two officials told The Daily Beast.
They added that no decisions on actually using force have yet been made.
“The White House is still in contemplation mode but the planning is moving forward and it’s more advanced than it’s ever been,” one administration official told the website. “All this effort to pressure the regime is part of the overall effort to find a political solution, but what happens if Geneva fails? It’s only prudent to plan for other options.”
In a May 8 meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee, the White House tasked several agencies with reporting on the pros and cons of two additional potential courses of action: arming vetted and moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, such as the Free Syrian Army, and formally recognizing the Syrian opposition council as the government of Syria, which would mean removing formal U.S. recognition of the Assad regime.
Sen. John McCain—who’s advocated for more aggressive U.S. support of the Syrian rebels and who traveled secretly into the country Monday to meet with the leaders of the Free Syrian Army—told The Daily Beast last week that despite the request for plans he doubts the White House will decide to implement a no-fly zone in Syria.
The Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs are opposed to the idea, said McCain.
“One thing about the Pentagon, if they don’t want to do something, they will tell you all sorts of reasons why they can’t do it. It’s going to take significant pressure for them to come up with realistic plans,” McCain told The Daily Beast.
“They will invent ways for us not to do it until the president of the United States says we’ve got to do it.”
McCain said a realistic plan for a no-fly zone would include hundreds of planes, and would be most effective if it included destroying Syrian airplanes on runways, bombing those runways, and moving U.S. Patriot missile batteries in Turkey close to the border so they could protect airspace inside northern Syria.
The administration probably won’t make any decisions about greater intervention in Syria until after the Geneva conference, McCain said.
“I think they’re moving towards the planning because the pressure is so great, but we’re in a full-court stall until this conference in Geneva,” he told The Daily Beast.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region Phil Gordon traveled to Turkey from May 9 to 11 and met there with leaders of the Syrian opposition to encourage them to attend the Geneva conference. A White House official told The Daily Beast that the administration agrees that Assad should step down but does not agree that this should be a precondition to moving forward with the Geneva plan.
“In meetings with Syrian opposition leaders to discuss the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué we underscored our support for the Syrian Council (SC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, reaffirmed our support for a political transition based on the framework of the Geneva Communiqué, and reiterated that Assad must go,” the official said.
Caitlin Hayden, the spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Staff, told The Daily Beast that the White House is considering a range of possible actions in Syria.
“As the president reiterated last week, all options are on the table with regard to Syria, though a scenario involving American boots on the ground is not likely,” she said.
“We are prepared for all contingencies,” she added. “We will continue to urgently work to support the opposition. We are consulting with the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Supreme Military Council about how we can continue to elevate our assistance; we are leading the world in providing humanitarian assistance for those affected by the violence; and we will continue to coordinate international efforts to end the bloodshed and hasten a political transition to a Syria where Bashar al-Assad has no role.”
To date, President Obama has only committed non-lethal aid, despite lawmakers' calls for more forceful action from the U.S. as the civil war there intensifies and threatens neighboring countries.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week passed a bill that would approve sending weapons to moderate rebel forces. The committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., stressed that "now is the time" to act to tip the balance toward resistance fighters.