Aug 13, 2012

‘More Visible’ U.S. Role Expected in Syria in Coming Weeks, Turkey Says

Patrick GoodenoughBy Patrick Goodenough
CNS News

Facebook RSS

The United States will take on a “more visible” role in the Syria crisis in the coming weeks, a Turkish newspaper quoted unnamed Turkish officials as saying, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a weekend visit discussed options that could include “no-fly zones” along Syria’s borders.

“Officials underscored that ‘a new stage’ has begun in Syria, adding that American involvement in Syria will become more visible in the upcoming weeks,” said the report in Today’s Zaman.

Turkey, which is already providing shelter to than 55,000 Syrian refugees—a number growing by 3,000 a day, according to Ankara—has long been mulling the idea of some sort of no-fly zone or safe haven just inside Syrian territory, as requested by some Syrian opposition groups.

The calls have grown louder as the humanitarian crisis grows, and amid frustration over the failure of the U.N. Security Council to agree on steps to hasten an end to the violence. Russia and China have three times vetoed Security Council resolutions on Syria, most recently on July 19. Earlier this month the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, said he was standing down.

Adding to the perceived urgency, the regime in the second half of July began using warplanes for the first time to strafe rebel-held areas, in addition to the helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery already being used in response to the uprising.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting in Istanbul with Clinton on Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for stronger action and suggested that such action was on its way.

“As soon as possible, we need to take decisive steps in order to stop the deterioration of humanitarian conditions in Syria,” he said. “The international community needs to take some very decisive steps in order to stop it.”

“If they [Syrian civilians] are exposed to air strikes every day and bombardments every day, this might even be considered war crime,” Davutoglu said. “So, in such a case, an international community can no longer keep its silence, and there are certain measures that need to be taken up.”

“Turkey and the United States of America have been working in a coordinated manner already,” he said a few minutes later. “But we need to brace for impact. So we need to focus on more practical, more pragmatic, and to-the-point solutions. This is the decision that we have taken.”

Hillary Clinton and Ahmet Davutoglu

‘Intense analysis and operational planning’

For her part, Clinton indicated that options were now being actively discussed.

In reply to a reporter’s question about “some kind of safe haven,” she said “what the minister and I agreed to today was to have very intensive operational planning,” adding that a formal working group was being set up that would also involve the two countries’ militaries and intelligence agencies.

After another questioner raised no-fly or safety zones, Clinton replied, “The issues you posed within your question are exactly the ones that the minister and I have agreed need greater in-depth analysis. It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions. But you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning.”

Clinton stressed that any actions should be designed to meet the number one strategic goal—“to hasten the end of the bloodshed and the Assad regime.”

Briefing reporters on background shortly before Clinton flew from West Africa to Turkey, a senior State Department official said she would see in her Istanbul meetings with Turkish officials and Syrian opposition activists “whether or not there are additional things that we can do to be helpful to the opposition that will add value rather than cause harm.”

“And over the course of her conversations and in trying to arrive at conclusions on that, she will shape her advice to the president and to her colleagues back in Washington about any further types of support or assistance that the United States might be prepared to provide,” the official added.

Last Wednesday, deputy national security advisor John Brennan said during a Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington that President Obama was keeping all options on the table with regard to Syria, including the possibility of a no-fly zone.

After Annan’s resignation, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) called on “the nations and people that are friends of the Syrian people” that act outside the U.N., “to attack the regime’s military and security centers, to create safe zones for the protection of over one million refugees, and to provide all the support needed by the Syrian people to topple the Assad regime.”

SNC officials repeated the no-fly zone call at the weekend, after the Clinton-Davutoglu talks.

The SNC has called for no-fly or safe zones at points along Syria’s 560 mile-long border with Turkey and its 230 mile-long border with Jordan. (Syria also has a 360 mile-long border with Iraq, a 230 mile-long border with Lebanon and a 47 mile-long border with Israel along the Golan Heights.)

The U.N. refugee agency reported last week that it had more than 50,000 Syrian refugees registered in Turkey, more than 45,000 in Jordan, more than 36,000 in Lebanon and almost 14,000 in Iraq.

A NATO-enforced no-fly zone established in Libya last year played an important part in the eventual defeat of Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. NATO took that action only after a March 2011 Security Council resolution authorized a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” short of foreign occupation to protect Libyan civilians under threat of attack.

Russia and China abstained in that vote, but quickly moved to strongly oppose the mission, which they argued had overstepped its mandate by actively supporting rebels against Gaddafi.

Moscow has repeatedly cited the Libya experience in its opposition to Security Council resolutions relating to Syria.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in a Washington Post op-ed last Monday called for greater U.S. involvement, saying that the U.S. and its allies could help to reinforce de facto safe zones already established by rebels in Syria.

“This would not require any U.S. troops on the ground but could involve limited use of our airpower and other unique U.S. assets,” they wrote.

The senators said they recognized the risks but warned that inaction carried even greater risks—“in lives lost, strategic opportunities squandered and values compromised.”

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), in contrast, pointed to reports about involvement of al-Qaeda fighters in the anti-Assad movement, voicing concern that the Obama administration “seems determined to fight yet another war in Syria that has nothing to do with American national interests.”