US eyes no-fly zone as Syria crosses ‘red line’

Barack Obama has made clear such proof would trigger greater American involvement. Picture: AP
Barack Obama has made clear such proof would trigger greater American involvement. Picture: AP
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The United States is considering a no-fly zone in Syria, potentially its first direct intervention into the two-year civil war, western diplomats said yesterday after the White House said Syria had crossed a “red line” by using nerve gas.

After months of deliberation, US president Barack Obama’s administration said on Thursday night that it would now arm rebels, having obtained proof the Syrian government used chemical weapons against fighters trying to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister David Cameron agreed yesterday that there was credible evidence of “multiple attacks” using chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. He said the UK believes the “scale of use is sanctioned and ordered by the Assad regime”, but also indicated that al-Qaeda-linked elements in the opposition movement had also attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria. The Prime Minister also insisted his government has made no decision on whether to arm moderate rebels opposed to Mr Assad.

But two senior western diplomats said Washington was looking into a no-fly zone close to Syria’s southern border with Jordan “to help Assad’s opponents”. It would be limited “time-wise and area-wise, possibly near the Jordanian border”. Imposing a no-fly zone could require the United States to destroy Syria’s sophisticated Russian-built air defences, thrusting it into the war with the sort of action Nato used to help topple Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya two years ago.

Washington says it has not ruled out a no-fly zone, but has played down the prospect and said a decision was not “imminent”. US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Thursday.

“We have not made any decision to pursue a military operation such as a no-fly zone. A no-fly zone would carry with it great and open-ended costs for the United States and the international community. It’s far more complex to undertake the type of effort, for instance, in Syria than it was in Libya.”

Any such move would also come up against a potential veto from Mr Assad’s ally Russia in the United Nations Security Council.

France said a no-fly zone would be impossible without security council authorisation, which made it unlikely for now.

Nevertheless, Washington has quietly taken steps that would make it easier, moving Patriot surface-to-air missiles, war planes and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan, officially as part of an annual exercise in the past week but making clear that the assets could stay on when the war games are over.

Speaking at 10 Downing Street, Mr Cameron said the US view on the use of chemical weapons was “consistent with what we have already said” about chemical weapons use. British experts at the Porton Down chemical warfare testing establishment have been involved in the assessment of samples taken from two sites in Syria, the Prime Minister said.

“We believe that the scale of use is sanctioned and ordered by the Assad regime,” he said.

“We haven’t seen any credible reporting of chemical weapons use by the Syrian opposition. However, we assess that elements affiliated to al-Qaeda in the region have attempted to acquire chemical weapons for probable use in Syria.”

Mr Cameron said he had to “choose my words carefully” as he revealed the information presented to him by the Joint Intelligence Committee. “I think it is right that the Americans have said what they have said and I wanted to back that up with the information and the involvement that we have had in that assessment.”

The UK led calls for the European Union’s arms embargo on Syria to be lifted, and Mr Cameron said evidence of chemical weapons use by Mr Assad justified that move.

Mr Cameron said: “We have made no decision to arm the opposition, but it was right to lift the arms embargo.

“The information about chemical weapons further shows the folly of having some embargo that gives some sort of almost moral equivalence to president Assad and to the legitimate opposition. We will continue to support, train and assist and work with the opposition.”

Mecca cleric calls on faithful to back rebels by ‘all means’ to defeat Assad

A SENIOR cleric in Islam’s holy city Mecca has exhorted followers to support Syrian rebels by “all means”, the latest in a series of rhetorical attacks on president Bashar al-Assad reflecting rising sectarian tension across the Middle East.

His appeal came at a time when momentum on the battlefield has been shifting in Mr Assad’s favour, just a few months after analysts wrote him off, making the prospect of his swift removal and an end to Syria’s civil war look remote in the near future.

The Sunni Muslim-led revolt against Iranian-backed Mr Assad, whose Alawite minority is a branch of Shiite Islam, has taken on sectarian overtones since the open intervention last month of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas on Mr Assad’s side.

In a sermon to worshippers at Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque in Mecca yesterday, Sunni Sheikh Saoud al-Shuraym denounced Mr Assad as a tyrant whose troops, he said, had raped women, killed children and destroyed homes over the past two years.

“All of that puts on the shoulder of each one of us a share of responsibility before God, on leaders, rulers, scholars, reformers, thinkers and people to take a unified and conscious stand against the mad [crackdown] on our brothers in Syria,” Mr Shuraym said in the sermon, which was broadcast on Saudi state television. “By God … our brothers need more efforts and determination to be exerted to remove the merciless injustice and aggression through all means.”

Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-ruled birthplace of Islam and a pivotal regional ally of the United States against Iran, has been a major financial patron of rebels fighting to oust Mr Assad.

After crack Hezbollah fighters helped Mr Assad’s forces retake the border town of Qusair this month from rebels, the influential Qatar-based Sunni cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi announced he had stopped advocating Sunni-Shiite reconciliation and was now calling for jihad in Syria.

His call was endorsed by a congress of leading Sunni clerics who met in Cairo on Thursday.

Top Syrian officers and families ‘defect to Turkey’

SOME 73 Syrian military officers, including seven generals and 20 colonels, have crossed the border with their families “seeking refuge” in Turkey.

The Turkish state news agency said that the group totalled 202 people. It said they arrived in the town of Reyhanli and were taken to a Turkish refugee camp that houses military officers who have defected from the Syrian army. The report did not say when they had arrived. Turkish foreign ministry officials and the local administrator in Reyhanli could not confirm the report.

The report of the defections comes after US president Barack Obama authorised lethal aid to Syrian rebels following an American announcement that it had conclusive evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.

US officials are still grappling with what type and how much weaponry to send. Turkey said the US announcement corroborates its own findings and urged the international community to take a decisive stance against the regime’s “atrocity”. Turkey has said preliminary tests on injured Syrians indicated chemical weapons had been used.

Meanwhile, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group vowed to keep fighting in Syria “wherever needed” and said his Shiite Muslim group had made a “calculated” decision to defend the Syrian regime no matter what the consequences.

The comments by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in a speech to supporters in Beirut signalled for the first time that the Iranian-backed group will stay involved in the civil war raging next door after helping president Bashar al-Assad’s army recapture a key town in Syria’s central Homs province from rebels.

Mr Assad’s forces, aided by fighters from Hezbollah, captured Qusair on 5 June, dealing a heavy blow to rebels who had been entrenched in the strategic town for more than a year. Since then, the regime has shifted its attention to recapture other areas in the central Homs province and Aleppo to the north.

A visibly angry Sheik Nasrallah did not say outright whether his fighters would go as far as fighting in Aleppo, but his words suggested the group was prepared to fight until the end.