The United States is considering imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, its first direct military intervention in the two-year-old civil war, Western diplomats revealed yesterday after the White House said Syria had crossed a "red line" by using nerve gas.
After months of equivocating, President Barack Obama's administration said on Thursday that it would now arm rebels, having obtained proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a charge Damascus dismissed as "lies".
Two senior Western diplomats said Washington was mulling a no-fly zone close to Syria's southern border with Jordan.
"Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Assad's opponents," one diplomat said. It would be limited "time-wise and area-wise, possibly near the Jordanian border".
But France said yesterday a no-fly zone was unlikely for now because of opposition from some United Nations Security Council members. "The problem with this type of measure is that it can only be put in place with approval from the international community," foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.
Imposing a no-fly zone would require the US to destroy Syria's air defences, entering the conflict with the sort of action that Nato used to help topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya two years ago.
Such a move would also face a potential veto by Russia in the Security Council. The Kremlin dismissed US evidence of Assad's use of nerve gas.
"I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing," said President Vladimir Putin's senior foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov. "It would be hard even to call them facts."
The Kremlin said Putin and Obama would meet on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday, with Syria expected to top the agenda for their talks.
France said a no-fly zone would be impossible without Security Council approval, which made it unlikely for now. Nevertheless, Washington has moved Patriot surface-to-air missiles, warplanes and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan in the past week, officially as part of an annual exercise, but making clear that the deployment could stay on when the war games are over.
The White House said it had conclusive evidence that Assad had used chemical weapons against rebels. Britain said yesterday it agreed with the US assessment about the use of chemical weapons, and the European Union said it reinforced the need for UN inspectors to be deployed to Syria.
While a small percentage of the 93,000 people reportedly killed in Syria are said to have died from chemical weapons - US intelligence puts the number at 100 to 150 - the White House views their deployment as a flouting of international norms. Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said the multiple chemical attacks gave greater urgency to the situation.
The US could give the rebels a range of weapons, including assault rifles, shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other anti-tank missiles.
The US has provided the rebels with rations and medical supplies. It has agreed in principle to provide body armour and other gear such as night-vision goggles, but the Pentagon said none had been provided so far.
Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse