U.S. eying no-fly zone over Syria as West ratchets up pressure on Assad, report says
U.S. denounces Russian plans to sell Assad regime S-300 missile defense systems, day after EU ban on weapons to opposition expires due to government's failure to bridge differences.
U.S. President Barack Obama instructed 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 in a report published Tuesday.
The Daily Beast also said that the U.S. was considering arming "vetted and moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, such as the free Syrian army" and officially recognizing the rebel council as the state's government. This would essentially mean that the U.S. would no longer recognize the Assad regime as the lawful government of Syria.
According to the report, the White House request was made just before Secretary of State John Kerry set off for his Middle East tour to try and schedule a conference between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels in Geneva.
The two officials who spoke to the Daily Beast said that Obama is pursuing a "dual-track strategy" of making efforts towards a political solution to the two-year-old uprising in Syria while simultaneously preparing for more direct U.S. military involvement. The officials said the decision to apply force in Syria has not 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. “
U.S. denounces Russia missile to Syria, welcomes EU lift of arms embargo on rebels
The United States on Tuesday welcomed the European Union's move to lift its arms embargo on Syrian rebels, but denounced Russia's plans to deliver anti-aircraft missiles to Bashar Assad's regime.
"We welcome the EU action," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, noting the U.S. continued to evaluate its support for the oppositionand to push for a political transition.
He condemned Russian arm sale, however, noting the U.S. believes "that providing arms to the Assad regime does not bring us closer to the political transition that Syria deserves."
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the EU move provided more "flexibility" to countries wishing to help the Syrian rebels, and said aid to the opposition was fundamentally different than Russia's arms sales, calling them "people who are defending themselves in the face of an enormous onslaught and a despicable onslaught of violence."
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov would not say whether Russia has shipped out the systems yet, but affirmed that Moscow would abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism. Ryabkov said the deal helps restrain some "hot heads" considering a military intervention in Syria.
Russia has been the key ally of Assad's regime, protecting it from the United Nations sanctions and providing it with weapons despite the civil war there that has claimed over 70,000 lives.
Ryabkov's statement comes a day after the European Union's decision to lift the arms embargo to Syrian opposition. The ban expired after RU governments failed to bridge their differences on the matter, with France and Britain scoring a victory at the expense of EU unity.
Britain and France have made a commitment not to deliver arms to the Syrian opposition "at this stage," an EU declaration said. But EU officials said the commitment effectively expires on August 1.
France said on Tuesday it reserved the right to send arms immediately to Syrian rebels fighting a two-year-old insurgency but had no plans to do so, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters Paris hoped there would be a breakthrough in finding a political solution over the next two months, but that the EU decision was a political declaration that had no legal basis.
When asked if that meant France could deliver weapons before August 1 if it deemed it necessary, Lalliot said: "Yes."
Britain said on Tuesday it did not have to wait until an August 1 meeting of European Union foreign ministers before taking a decision to arm Syria's rebels, but stressed it had not yet taken any decision.
"I must correct one thing of concern. I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case," Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio, adding that Britain was "not excluded" from arming the rebels before August, and that it would not act alone if it chose to do so.
Israel calls Russia arms sale 'a threat'
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon implied following the Russian announcement of its arms deal that Israel would retaliate in Syria should the weapons systems reach the war-torn country.
Ya'alon said that Russia's intent to supply Assad's army with the advanced anti-aircraft systems is "a threat, as far as we’re concerned," but asserted that the weapons have yet to be shipped out.
"I can’t say there’s been an acceleration [in weapons delivery]," he told reporters. "The shipments haven’t set out yet and I hope they won’t. If they do arrive in Syria, God forbid, we’ll know what to do.”
The defense minister's statement appears to contradict remarks made by IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, who said last week that Assad's regime has invested millions in purchasing anti-aircraft missiles, and that the S-300 shipment "is on its way."
Russia's foreign minister said earlier this month that Moscow had no new plans to sell the S-300 to Syria but left open the possibility of delivering such systems under an existing contract.
Israel is concerned that the weapons meant for Syria's arsenal could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad against the rebels in Syria.
Last month Israel reportedly launched air strikes in Syria, targeting medium-range missiles that had arrived from Iran and were destined for Hezbollah.