4/5: U.S. Reviews Military Options for Syria


U.S. Reviews Military Options for Syria
By ADAM ENTOUS and JULIAN E. BARNES Wall Street Journal

The White House, under pressure from key allies and U.S. lawmakers, is reviewing a new set of potential military options for assisting rebels in Syria, according to U.S. officials.

Among the ideas were proposals to bomb Syrian aircraft on the ground and to use Patriot antimissile batteries in Turkey to defend swaths of northern Syria from the regime's Scud missiles, they said.
[image] Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A Syrian woman and children at a refugee camp in Idlib province, Syria, along the Turkish border last month.

Defense officials said those two options faced potentially insurmountable technological and legal hurdles, however­underscoring the difficulty of finding a plausible way to address increasing international pressure to weigh in more forcefully on the side of the Syrian rebels. Other options were also presented to the White House but officials declined to discuss them.
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Top U.S. national-security officials met this week at the White House to discuss the revamped options, which were drawn up by the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff in response to a request from the White House.
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President Barack Obama and Pentagon chiefs remain skeptical about using force because of concerns about being drawn into a new conflict, and this latest review may only lead to further incremental steps, officials say.

The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure from close allies including the U.K., France and Israel to strengthen some rebel groups and help them gain ground militarily against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Officials from these countries say they are concerned that radical Islamist groups, including the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front, could dominate post-Assad Syria the longer the civil war drags on. They have also told Washington its reluctance to support moderate rebels more fully will reduce the West's ability to influence the country's future.

As the death toll in Syria climbed over the past year­from 5,000 to 70,000, according to the United Nations­the Obama administration has been locked in debate over whether or how to intervene, exposing rifts between State Department and Central Intelligence Agency officials who advocated greater U.S. involvement against top White House advisers deeply resistant to anything that would drag the U.S. directly into an open-ended conflict.
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The military's Joint Chiefs of Staff first presented military options to the White House last July. They included a no-fly zone, a humanitarian corridor and a more limited aerial campaign, as well as options, backed by the CIA, for arming and training rebel fighters who don't have ties to radical Islamist groups, according to current and former officials.

Mr. Obama rebuffed the CIA's proposal to arm select rebel fighters, but the spy agency got a green light to provide limited training to select rebels, according to current and former officials. The White House declined to comment.

In the new review conducted in recent weeks, the Joint Staff studied the possibility of destroying Mr. Assad's aircraft on the ground by using weapons that can be launched from ships offshore, reducing the need to send U.S. aircraft into Syrian airspace.

"It makes sense to review where we are, and see if there are any openings," a senior U.S. official said.

In addition to using the Patriots to shoot down Scud missiles inside Syria, Joint Staff looked at the feasibility of configuring the Patriots to hit aircraft rather than Scuds. A technical analysis by the Pentagon of the option of using the Patriots in Turkey to intercept Scuds over northern Syria deemed the idea unworkable, according to a senior defense official. The Pentagon was also deeply skeptical about using the Patriots to shoot down Syrian aircraft, according to defense officials.

Supporters of an intervention within the administration and in Congress, however, say the Pentagon's assessments reflected the military's reluctance to get into a shooting war in Syria.

The option of using Patriots in Turkey to defend against Scuds envisages using the batteries to protect parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. But defense officials found that the Patriots, because of range and technological limitations, may only be able to cover a sliver of the territory. Advocates of the proposal said even a sliver of northern Aleppo, if protected, will help create a safe zone inside Syria in which the opposition could organize.

Administration lawyers also have questioned on what legal grounds the U.S. can intervene militarily without either a United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization mandate, barring a major provocation by Damascus such as an attack on Turkey or Jordan or the use of chemical weapons.

Administration officials declined to discuss any of the options presented to the White House but said some previously proposed options that weren't acted upon remain on the table, including a proposal to provide body armor and other equipment to vetted fighters.

"I'm not going to discuss the details of our internal deliberations, but let me be clear that we are constantly reviewing every possible option that could help end the violence and accelerate a political transition," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and senior committee member Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, sent Mr. Obama a letter in March urging him to consider steps including using Patriots in Turkey and destroying Syrian aircraft.

Defense officials said the idea of shooting missiles at planes on runways and using Patriot batteries was originally briefed to lawmakers by Joseph Holliday, a former Army officer and fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. Mr. Holliday, who declined to discuss his briefings, defended the technical feasibility of the options.

"The idea was, what steps could you take short of a full-scale no-fly zone?" Mr. Holliday said. "We were looking at intermediate steps." Mr. Holliday said it wasn't necessary to destroy every airstrip or knock down every Scud or aircraft to create a safe zone within Syria.

"The point would be to create a space where you would have a robust humanitarian aid program, a robust training program and a place for a transitional government to form," Mr. Holliday said. "The employment of Patriots would be a tactical tool to get you to a strategic objective of being able to work with the opposition more closely."

Write to Adam Entous at and Julian E. Barnes atjulian

A version of this article appeared April 6, 2013, on page A7 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Reviews Syria Options.
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