Senators pressure Obama on no fly zone in Syria

American lawmakers in letter to Obama: Assad's victories threaten US national security; urge president to send rebels heavy arms.

June 20, 2013 00:13
3 minute read.
US Capitol building in Washington DC.

US Capitol building in Washington DC 390. (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)


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WASHINGTON – Less than a week after the White House announced findings of chemical weapons use in Syria and the initiation of a policy that would allow the CIA to provide Syrian rebels with light weaponry and ammunition, President Barack Obama is answering critics who say that small arms are no longer enough to turn the direction of the war.

In a letter from leading senators on foreign policy, Democrats Carl Levin (Michigan) and Robert Menendez (New Jersey) and Republican John McCain (Arizona) warned that President Bashar Assad is winning the war, and that his victories directly threaten the national security interests of the United States.

“It could further radicalize the Syrian opposition and enhance the growing influence of al-Qaida-affiliated groups inside Syria,” the team of senators wrote in their letter to Obama. “It could push the Middle East, especially Iraq and Lebanon, deeper toward the prospect of sectarian conflict. It would be a major victory for the Iranian regime and its proxy forces that would expand their extremist influence in the region.”

The US must therefore provide moderate rebel forces with heavy arms, the senators argued, including antiaircraft and anti-tank weaponry – and should strike regime-held air bases.

“We must also degrade Assad’s ability to use air power and ballistic missiles against civilian populations and opposition forces in Syria,” the letter continued.

“Such actions could include the targeting of regime airfields, runways, and aircraft on the ground, which would also limit Assad’s ability to transport and resupply his ground forces and those of his allies by air.”

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The letter comes as details of White House deliberations over a new policy last week have begun to leak to American journalists. Jeffrey Goldberg reported in Bloomberg that Secretary of State John Kerry made a forceful push for air strikes on Syrian air bases, arguing that they were the sites from which chemical weapons attacks were launched and that doing so would severely hamper Russian and Iranian weapons deliveries.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, shot down that idea, aggressively pushing back at Kerry to envision all possible consequences, the report asserts.

Obama explained to PBS interviewer Charlie Rose on Monday, “If you haven’t been in the Situation Room poring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking what are all our options and examining what are all the consequences, and understanding that, for example, if you set up a no-fly zone that you may not be actually solving the problem on the ground or if you set up a humanitarian corridor are you, in fact, committed not only to stopping aircraft from going over that corridor but also missiles? “And if so,” the president continued, “does that mean that you then have to take out the armaments in Damascus? And are you prepared then to bomb Damascus?” The Pentagon estimates it would take 700 sorties just to bomb Syrian anti-aircraft batteries, before striking targets.

A Pentagon official confirmed with The Jerusalem Post widely held skepticism in military circles at the prospect of a no-fly zone, which, they say, would effectively require acts of war.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Monday that his government “fundamentally will not allow this scenario” of a no-fly zone, anyway, as world leaders converged on the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Syrian humanitarian aid was on the agenda; a no-fly zone was not.

The leaders agreed to pledge $1.5 billion in new aid to refugees, and to renew efforts to bring both sides of the civil war to peace talks in Geneva.

Secretary-General Ban Kimoon praised the G8 communique, which also called on the Assad government to allow UN investigators to enter the country finally to examine allegations of chemical weapons use – an investigation originally requested by the Assad regime.

“The reports submitted to him by [UN] member states, including by the Syrian government, are serious and warrant full and impartial investigation,” Ban’s spokesman said.

Rebel forces fighting Assad have submitted requests to the White House for weapons that could stop tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.

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