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.
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 said. 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 Daily Beast. “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, he said.
“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 said. “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.
In April, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense that the military was planning for a range of options in Syria but that he did not necessarily support using those options.
"We're prepared with options, should military force be called upon and assuming it can be effectively used to secure our interests without making matters worse,” he said. “We must also be ready for options for an uncertain and dangerous future. That is a future we have not yet identified."
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 said.
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.
Critics of the administration, including McCain, doubt that the new Geneva conference—coming a year after the earlier summit produced the Communiqué that called for an end to violence and democratic transition –will produce any progress toward a political solution. They also doubt that the Russians are committed to such a solution, considering that they continue to provide arms to the Assad regime. But Kerry has continued to endorse and push for the conference as a way to begin real negotiations between the regime and the opposition.
“This is a Kerry initiative,” an administration official said. “It’s also a test of the veracity of the Russian claims that they are committed to a peaceful outcome that reflects the will of the Syrian people.”
The Geneva conference will happen at about the same time as a huge set of military exercises conducted in Jordan called “Eager Lion,” which will include 15,000 troops from 18 countries, including the United States. The U.S. could leave military assets in Jordan following the exercise that might be useful for a no-fly zone, such as F-16 fighter aircraft.
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 said. “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.”
Some Syria experts praised the White House’s decision to plan more options in Syria, but doubted that Obama would actually make the decision to intervene in the near term.
“No doubt, the United States and its like-minded allies and partners are fully capable, without the use of ground troops, of obviating the Assad regime’s degraded, fixed, and mobile air defenses and suppressing the regime’s use of airpower,” said Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington-based group that advocates for aggressive U.S. military action in support of human rights and democratic allies. “But the question is whether that’s something President Obama actually has the will and resolve to do.”