BEIRUT: Political pressure was mounting on U.S. President Barack Obama to act Friday after his ‘red line’ on chemical weapons use in Syria was crossed, as reports circulated that the administration is mulling a no-fly zone over the war-wracked country.
Washington definitively confirmed Thursday that Bashar Assad’s regime had used nerve gas during the civil war, killing up to 150 people, and triggering the administration to provide “direct military support” to the opposition, Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters. Such support will include lethal aid, in the form of small arms and ammunition, U.S. officials told the New York Times.
As part of deepening U.S. involvement, the administration is considering imposing limited a no-fly zone near Syria’s border with Jordan, two senior Western diplomats said Friday.
"Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Assad's opponents," one diplomat said. He said it would be limited "time-wise and area-wise, possibly near the Jordanian border", without giving details.
Their comments follow a report in the Wall Street Journal Thursday that said military proposals include a no-fly zone over rebel training camps. This zone would stretch up to 40 kilometers into Syria, and would be enforced by warplanes inside Jordan airspace armed with air-to-air missiles, the report said, also citing unnamed US officials.
The area near the Jordanian border contains some of the most densely-populated parts of Syria, including the outskirts of the capital Damascus.
Washington has moved F-16 fighter jets and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan in the past week, officially as part of an annual exercise, but the U.S. has made clear that the forces deployed could stay on when the military drills are over.
Imposing such a no-fly zone and providing lethal support to the disparate rebel groups working to oust Assad would mark a dramatic step up in the U.S. engagement with the Syria war – moves Republicans lawmakers have been keenly advocating for.
Maintaining such a zone would require the United States to disable Syria's air defenses, mirroring the kind of action NATO used to help topple Moamar Gadhafi in Libya.
Syria's main opposition group the National Coalition hailed Washington’s plans, and the commander of rebel fighters on the ground, Gen. Salim Idriss, called on Obama to provide weapons as soon as possible.
"We hope to have the weapons and ammunition that we need in the near future," he told Al-Arabiya TV.
However, other rebel leaders and activists voiced concerns that U.S. direct military support for the opposition would provoke harsh retaliation from Assad’s forces, and further chemical arms use.
They said the regime could employ such weapons in an offensive capability to recapture rebel-held territory.
"Until now the regime has confined the use of sarin to certain fronts. But it appears intent now on capturing northern and eastern neighborhoods of Damascus, so we could see the scale of use of chemical weapons changing, and masses of civilians getting killed," a Damascus-based activist told Reuters.
"Assad needs to be hit hard to understand that there are consequences to what he is doing. Otherwise he has the capacity and willingness to use chemical weapons for mass killings."
Rebel commander Abu Ghazi, who operates in the Damascus countryside area of eastern Ghouta, where the regime have advance in recent weeks, said chemical weapons use follows strategic gains by the opposition.
"The pattern we have been seeing is whenever we advance he uses chemical weapons," he said. "Most of the Ghouta is now under siege, and Assad is not in a hurry. He is gauging the reaction of the international community every time he uses sarin and if the lame response continues, he will use chemical weapons to try and retake the Ghouta," he added.
The government slammed the White House’s claims of its chemical weapons use as “full of lies” and based on “fabricated information,” a Foreign Ministry statement said Friday.
"The United States is using cheap tactics to justify President Barack Obama's decision to arm the Syrian opposition," it said.
Obama’s plan to openly arm rebel forces puts the U.S. on a diplomatic collision course with Russia, a long-term supporter of the Assad regime.
Evidence of nerve gas use "does not look convincing," President Vladimir Putin's senior foreign policy adviser said Friday.
Additional military support for the opposition will also undermine a peace conference tentatively scheduled for next month, which aims to carve out a negotiated solution to the civil war. The talks have been jointly organized by Moscow and Washington, despite backing opposing sides in the conflict.
As momentum for arming rebels built up, Assad’s troops turned their attention to north Syria – particularly Aleppo, where fierce fighting raged Friday.
Regime and opposition fighters battled in the city’s eastern Sakhour district, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that the fighting is "the most violent in months."