The United States is considering a no-fly zone in Syria and will send small arms, ammunition, and possibly anti-tank weapons to aid rebels in their long-running civil war against President Bashar al-Assad, reports say.
Reuters is reporting two senior Western diplomats said the United States was looking into a limited no-fly zone close to Syria's southern border with Jordan.
"Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Assad's opponents," one diplomat said.
Meanwhile, CNN reported on Friday the United States will send weapons, provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, to Syrian rebels.
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The reports come a day after the Obama administration announced that it had definitive evidence that Assad’s military had used sarin gas and other chemical weapons against opposition forces. The use of the chemicals had crossed a “red line” imposed by President Barack Obama, and the administration said it would increase its military support to the rebels.
But the White House has declined to specify what increased military assistance it would provide.
“I can't give you a specific timeline or itemized list of what that assistance is,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.
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 Gaddafi in Libya two years ago.Washington says it has not excluded a no fly zone but is also considering other options.
"We have been clear that we are not excluding options but at this stage no decision has been taken," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Obama's incoming national security adviser.
"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," U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Thursday.
Any such move would also come up against a potential veto from Assad ally Russia in the U.N. Security Council. The Kremlin dismissed U.S. evidence of Assad's use of nerve gas.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday any attempt to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria using F-16 fighter jets and Patriot missiles from Jordan would violate international law.
"There have been leaks from Western media regarding the serious consideration to create a no-fly zone over Syria through the deployment of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and F-16 jets in Jordan," said Lavrov, speaking at a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart.
"You don't have to be a great expert to understand that this will violate international law," he said.
France said a no-fly zone would be impossible without U.N. 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.
It’s clear that no U.S. troops are heading to Syria, Rhodes said on Friday.
“The one option that we've basically taken off the table is boots on the ground," Rhodes said, adding that Obama has made the final decision on the step that "dramatically increases assistance to" rebel forces.
McCain: 'Risk We Take'
Sen. John McCain, a longtime supporter of arming the rebels, said on Friday that it was critical to provide “whatever weapons they need to defend themselves against the onslaught of Russian weapons of the most sophisticated kind and Iranian weapons.
“We need to have heavy weapons, both anti-tank and anti-air, and unless we take out Bashar Assad’s air assets and establish a safe zone, it will not change the favorable conditions on the battlefield for Bashar Assad,” the Arizona Republican told CNN.
He added that the rebels were “absolutely” losing their battle with Assad’s forces. “There’s no doubt about it.”
While the arms are good, McCain said that a “no-fly zone” would best aid the rebels.
“We have to establish a safe zone,” he told CNN. “We have to take out, with cruise missiles, their air assets and logistics and establish a safe zone, then that can change the course and not before.”
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Meanwhile, the White House announcement set off a bevy of claims and counterclaims around the world over the conflict that the United Nations said has claimed more than 93,000 lives since it began over two years ago.
In Britain, officials hailed the U.S. change in position — while an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin called the White House’s evidence of the chemical weapons used by Assad’s forces "unconvincing."
When asked about Russia's questioning of the U.S. assertion that Assad's forces used chemical weapons multiple times, killing at least 100 people, Rhodes said the information provided to Putin's government included samples of sarin gas and other "convincing" evidence.
"We have a broad range of evidence associated with the multiple incidents of chemical weapons use that we assess took place," he told CNN. "That includes open-source reporting. It includes intelligence reporting. It includes the accounts of individuals. It also includes physiological samples of sarin that we've obtained from within Syria.
“So we assess with a high confidence that sarin has been used,” Rhodes added. “And, frankly, the regime maintains custody of these weapons."
Rhodes noted that Obama and Putin would meet on Monday at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, and said that he expected Syria to be a main topic of discussion.
For its part, the Syrian foreign ministry on Friday accused Washington of releasing "a statement full of lies regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria," according to a statement on state TV.
And a government statement published by the state news agency SANA accused the United States of using "flagrant tricks to come up with any possible means to justify the decision of President Barack Obama to arm the Syrian opposition."
Washington is "clearly exercising scandalous double standards in dealing with terrorism," the statement said. The Syrian government under Assad refers to the rebels as terrorists.
President Obama has been widely attacked for not acting sooner to assist the Syrian opposition — and the declaration that the red line of chemical weapons use had been crossed raised expectations of U.S. arms heading to the rebels.
Louay Almokdad, the political and media coordinator of the rebel Free Syrian Army, told CNN on Friday that he expected the United States to initially send ammunition, rather than heavy arms.
The rebels promised U.S. and European officials that any arms they received would not end up with extremists among the anti-government forces, he said.
In his interview with CNN, McCain acknowledged that was a risk in providing the weapons, but “that’s the risk we take. But if we have a safe zone and move the opposition council in there — and have them coordinate with the military, they can much easier get the weapons to the right people and use it effectively.
“This is a mess,” the Arizona senator added. “It’s going to be very, very difficult — much more difficult than it would have been two years ago. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m saying that the status quo is the worst of all options.”
Obama, G-8 Leaders Talk Syria
President Obama spoke with European leaders today about ending the conflict in Syria and promoting democracy in Libya, two issues topping the agenda for next week’s Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland.
Participating in the hour-long videoconference call were U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, according to a statement from Cameron’s office.
The leaders discussed how G-8 countries should work toward a political solution in Syria, where more than 93,000 people have been killed in a two-year civil war between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and opposition forces, according to the statement.
The U.S., U.K. and France are among G-8 members that have said Assad’s departure is essential to any political transition. Russia, another G-8 member, is a long-time ally of the Assad regime and one of the Syrian government’s top arms suppliers.
The G-8 is composed of leaders from the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia. Leaders will gather June 17-18 at the Lough Erne resort in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland to discuss topics that also include tax havens and trade proposals. Obama departs in the evening on June 16 and will travel to Germany after G-8 meetings.
Information from Reuters Bloomberg was used in this report.
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