Exclusive: Top Islamic Leader Calls for No-Fly Zone in Syria

The head of the influential 57-country group that helped set the political stage for a no-fly zone in Libya tells Josh Rogin it’s now time for one in Syria.

The leader of the world’s largest coalition of Muslim countries personally endorsed the idea of an international no-fly zone in Syria Monday, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast.

Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the head of the 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is visiting Washington this week to meet with administration officials and lawmakers. The Daily Beast joined him for a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, after which he declared that he thinks a no-fly zone in Syria is needed, as long as it has international legal legitimacy.

“The benefit at least is that it will stop the regime from using aircraft against its own people. And then of course it will have other effects from a military point of view as well,” he said. “We should get out of the vicious circle we’ve been living through since day one where the international community has consensus on what not to do but no consensus on what to do.”

The United Nation Security Council would have to pass a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone in Syria, Ihsanoglu said, which would mean the Russians would also have to go along. That isn’t likely, he acknowledged.

The OIC includes countries that support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Iran and Iraq, as well as countries that are arming the opposition, including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. Syria’s membership was suspended last August, with the group citing “deep concern at the massacres and inhuman acts suffered by the Syrian people.” At the time, Ihsanoglu said he “did not see much support for external military intervention.”

As an organization, the official position of the OIC, which operates by broad consensus among its wide and diverse membership, remains opposed to military intervention in Syria. But Ihsanoglu said Monday that he sees the no-fly zone as a step toward providing the conditions for a negotiated end to the crisis.

“There is a need for political solution and there is a need for international consensus, otherwise the war in Syria will go on uncontrolled and nobody can control anything,” he said. “It will really bring horrors to the Middle East; it will destabilize the Middle East.”

In March 2011, the OIC called for a no-fly zone in Libya, just as Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was threatening to attack the city of Benghazi. Just nine days later, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the Libya no-fly zone, citing the support (PDF) from the OIC. Two days after that, a multistate coalition led by France and Britain, with America providing support, implemented one, and months later the civil war there closed when Gaddafi was killed, on October 20.

Last week, The Daily Beast reported that the White House had recently asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to furnish plans for a no-fly zone in Syria. The Pentagon responded that “no new planning” was going on, and the White House said that plans for a no-fly zone, as well as several other options, had long existed.

This week, an administration official told The Daily Beast that while there was no “new planning,” what was new was that the White House had added the discussion of a Syria no-fly zone to the agenda of a senior-level meeting of the principals committee that was held at the White House on May 22 and has not been previously reported. The senior officials were there to debate the practicality of implementing a no-fly zone with countries such as Britain and France, as well as the legal implications of instituting one zone without formal U.N. Security Council authorization.

Some senators, including John McCain, who traveled secretly to Syria last week, have pushed for a no-fly zone that would be enforced partially with Patriot-missile batteries currently deployed in Turkey. Today, the Washington Post reported the U.S. will deploy Patriot-missile batteries to Jordan as well.

The May 22 White House meeting was also meant to discuss the options of arming moderate, vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and switching formal U.S. recognition away from the Assad regime and to the opposition leadership structure, known as the Syrian Opposition Coalition, two administration officials said.

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Ihsanoglu said Monday he was opposed to arming the opposition. “Arming any party of the fighting will just help more killing, more devastation, and will not create a solution,” he said.

The upcoming “Geneva 2” conference being organized by the U.S. and Russia, a follow-on to last year’s Geneva Communiqué, is a precious opportunity to make progress on the crisis, said Ihsanoglu. But the conference will only have significance, he said, if it is followed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that endorses whatever statement comes out of it.

“[The results of Geneva 2] could be enforced by the United Nations Charter, particularly Chapter 7 ( which lays out the Security Council’s war powers). Unless this happens, Geneva 2 will again be just a clever drafting of statements,” he said. Unless Russia agrees to support a new Security Council resolution, he added, “then there will be no use for Geneva 2.”

Ihsanoglu has a long history in Syria and met Assad several times. He made another bold statement in January when he called for Assad to step down in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune.

“My call was part of a cry to find a solution,” he said Monday. “There is a need to sacrifice, and it’s not the nation that should sacrifice for its leader, but the leader who should sacrifice for the nation. It looks like this is part of the solution.”

Killings and atrocities are being committed by both the regime and the opposition, but the Syrian military’s use of force against civilians should not be tolerated and Assad should step down to acknowledge his own role in those decisions, said Ihsanoglu.

“He is responsible for that, no doubt,” he said. “If you are using aircraft and heavy artillery against your people, you are responsible.”

There’s no definitive proof that Assad has used chemical weapons against his people, he said, but the fact that President Obama has set the use of chemical weapons as a red line to determine U.S. involvement in Syria makes no sense.

“I really don’t see the rationale behind this red line. How can one consider only using chemical weapons as a red line, when you have almost 100,000 people killed—this is very strange. This is very difficult to understand,” he said.

The Obama administration is not eager to get involved in Syria due to the legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the war-weariness of the American people, he speculated. But the international community needs the U.S. to step up and use its political and diplomatic power to pressure all the parties to find a way out of the stalemate.

“I think the United States can and should do more,” Ihsanoglu said.