The Obama administration, frustrated by the stalled Syria talks, plans to revisit military options ranging from expanding efforts to train and equip moderate rebels to setting up no-fly zones, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
Exasperated by stalled talks seeking ways to pressure the regime and its Russian allies, the administration again will consider military, diplomatic and intelligence options that previously were presented to the White House but set aside in favor of pursuing international talks, according to officials briefed on the deliberations.
“There is a general sense that it’s time to take another look,” a senior U.S. official said of the military options, adding that high-level discussions at the White House could begin as early as this week, the Journal reported.
Adding to the problem, the administration is now having to search for a new leader to aid in an insurgency that’s dominated by Islamist factions, including groups with connections to al-Qaida.
Gen. Salim Idriss, the rebel leader the State Department once described as “a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition,” was ousted Sunday at a meeting of the 30-member Supreme Military Council, the rebels’ highest authority.
Military options range from long-range missiles to prevent the Syrian government from flying its aircraft and creating humanitarian zones to training the opposition to hold territory outside the regime’s control and keep out al Qaida-linked groups, U.S. officials and European diplomats told the Journal.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently discussed military and intelligence options privately with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2012, the Journal reported an official close to Petraeus saying. While CIA director, Petraeus, a former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, was a leading behind-the-scenes advocate of aiding the rebels in Syria.
Officials told the paper that it is unclear how serious the White House is about reconsidering the options for the U.S. to influence the course of the three-year-old Syrian war, which has claimed more than 140,000 lives. But officials said the re-evaluation has increasing support within the military and the U.S. intelligence community.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the White House with military options in meetings in 2012 and 2013, officials say, and has consistently been a leading voice of caution about using them.
Among options is supplementing the Central Intelligence Agency’s limited, covert arming and training program for moderate rebels by creating a parallel training mission led by U.S. Special Operations forces.
A military train-and-equip mission, officials said, could focus on training rebels in ways to counter al Qaida and hold ground outside the control of the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
One U.S. concern is that the Assad regime could retaliate against Jordan, where an expanded training mission would take place, officials told the Journal.
As part of the train-and-equip option, military planners have proposed creating a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there, according to U.S. officials.
Military planners say that creating an area to train and equip rebel forces would require keeping Syrian aircraft well away from the Jordanian border.
Last year, the U.S. moved Patriot air defense batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan. Both would be integral to a no-fly zone if Obama approves the use of that option. U.S. planes have air-to-air missiles that could destroy Syrian planes from long range. But officials said aircraft might be required to enter Syrian air space if threatened by advancing Syrian planes.
Military officials say the Pentagon remains prepared.
“We have forces in the region,” a senior military official told the Journal. “We have ships in the Med. Everything we need to carry out a military option is there.”