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 on Monday, May 27, 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.