President Obama has directed the Defense Department to draft plans to establish a no-fly-zone in Syria that would be enforced by NATO members, the Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, citing two anonymous U.S. officials.
The White House issued the directive prior to last week's visit to the Middle East by Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the website. Washington is seeking to build up regional support for a planned international conference in Switzerland that aims to find a political resolution to the Syrian civil war that has killed an estimated 80,000 people and reportedly involved a number of chemical-weapon strikes.
"The White House is still in contemplation mode but the planning is moving forward and it's more advanced than it's ever been," a U.S. official said in an interview. "All this effort to pressure the [Bashar Assad] regime is part of the overall effort to find a political solution, but what happens if Geneva fails? It's only prudent to plan for other options."
Defense Department spokesman George Little on Tuesday said the White House had not requested any "new military planning effort" regarding possible intervention in Syria, The Hill newspaper reported. "The Joint Staff, along with the relevant combatant commanders, continue to conduct prudent planning for a range of possible military options."
The European Union's decision to lift a prohibition on exporting weapons to Syria is aimed at signaling to the Assad regime and to its ally Russia that if the planned peace talks in Geneva are not productive, Western nations are resolved to help opposition forces win, high-ranking European envoys told the New York Times on Tuesday.
The easing of the arms embargo is also aimed at strengthening moderate rebel factions, which have lagged behind better-armed opposition Islamist militias, according to the diplomats.
The State Department on Tuesday said it welcomed the lifting of the arms ban, Agence France-Presse reported. "We do support the easing of the EU arms embargo as part of the international community's effort to demonstrate its full support for the Syrian opposition," spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
The United Kingdom and France are seen as the most open to supplying the rebels with weapons but they are being urged to hold back over the short-term, according to the Washington Post. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Paris and London have promised not to send any arms to the rebels before August so as to give internationally sponsored peace negotiations a chance to succeed.
Ventrell also castigated Russia's announcement that it would export S-300 air-defense batteries to Damascus, United Press International reported. "We condemn the continued supply of Russian weapons to the regime, and this includes all class of weapons," Ventrell said. "We've seen how the regime uses those arms."
Moscow has said the air defenses would serve regional stability and has lashed the EU withdrawal of the arms embargo.