US shoots down Syria 'no fly zone' idea
The White House on Friday all but ruled out the notion of mounting a no-fly zone in Syria, billing it as difficult, dangerous and costly, and unsuitable to halting close quarters ground battles.
A day after US officials pledged to stiffen military help to Syrian rebels, likely moving towards sending some form of arms for the first time, they made it clear that swift US mission creep in the country is not on the cards.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said mounting a no-fly zone in Syria poses significant logistical and strategic challenges that are more acute than those faced by NATO and Arab League allies in Libya in 2011.
"It's dramatically more difficult and dangerous and costly in Syria, for a variety of reasons," Rhodes said.
"One is that in Libya, you already had a situation where the opposition controlled huge portions of the country and you could essentially protect those portions of the country from the air.
"You do not have the same types of air defense system that exist within Syria. So in that regard, it's more difficult."
Rhodes also argued that in many cases, rebels and forces fighting with Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime were "fighting in some instances block by block in cities" in a way that made targeting particular forces difficult.
"I think people need to understand that the no-fly zone is not some type of silver bullet that is going to stop a very intense and, in some respect, sectarian conflict," Rhodes said, stressing though that Washington was not ruling out options, some strategic approaches would not work.
"We don't at this point believe that the US has a national interest in pursuing a very intense, open-ended military engagement through a no-fly zone in Syria at this juncture."
US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice took a similar tack when asked about a possible no-fly zone in New York.
"That option has some downsides and limitations that we are very well aware of and will factor into any decision," said Rice, who will next month take over as Obama's National Security Advisor at the White House.
Domestic opponents of the White House have demanded that Obama set up a no-fly zone in Syria to protect refugees and rebels from air strikes.
Republican Senator John McCain said Thursday that the United States should be able to set up a no-fly zone "fairly easily,"
"I'm talking about establishing a safe zone, it's neutralizing Bashar's air power, which is a decisive factor now in this conflict, as compared to doing nothing," McCain told CNN on Thursday.
Top White House officials on Friday refused to publicly provide a list of the kind of new aid Washington would provide in response to requests by Syria's opposition Supreme Military Council.
But the bolstered "military support" is understood to include some lethal materials that Washington has previously declined to throw into the conflict. Whether heavy weapons or just small arms will be involved is unclear.
Part of the reticence of top officials is apparently due to the fact that such military aid is classified and may be funneled to selected Syrian rebels forces in a covert mission by the Central Intelligence Agency.
"We do want to be responsive to the requests that have been made by the SMC and General Idris, consistent with our own national interests," said Rhodes, referring to rebel military leader Selim Idris.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki rejected some reports in US media that a no-fly zone had been decided upon, though said it remained in the options that Obama had at his disposal.
A day after his White House announced stringer US aid to Syrian rebels after concluding Assad's forces had crossed a US "red line" by using chemical weapons, Obama still had not addressed the policy change in public.
The decision came after prolonged agonizing among White House officials about how to deepen US aid to Syrian rebels while at the same time trying to ensure America is not dragged into another war in the Middle East.
Obama could privately detail US plans in a video conference session later on Friday with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy, and will tackle the issue at the G8 summit Monday and Tuesday in Northern Ireland.
Despite private indications on the scope of the assistance and leaks to the media on the likelihood that some arms will be involved, the true nature of the new US military aid remained unclear.
"It seems to me that we are not yet clear precisely what the policy response is going to be -- greater support on a different scale, and with perhaps greater urgency of one kind or the other seems to be on the cards," said a Western diplomat.
"I think the specific answers of what and when and how have yet to be produced."