The Obama administration, exasperated by stalled talks over Syria and seeking ways to pressure the regime and its Russian allies, plans to revisit options ranging from expanding efforts to train and equip moderate rebels to setting up no-fly zones, according to officials briefed on the deliberations.
The move means the administration again will consider military, diplomatic and intelligence options that previously were presented to the White House but set aside in favor of pursuing international talks. Growing frustration with the stalled diplomatic track in Geneva and with Russia's refusal to exert pressure on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to agree to talks over a transitional government prompted the move to re-evaluate U.S. options.
"There is a general sense that it's time to take another look," a senior U.S. official said of the military options, adding that high-level discussions at the White House could begin as early as this week.
Seeking to relieve pressure and build support from allies, senior U.S. officials recently told their French and other European counterparts about the decision to take another look at the options, according to European diplomats.
Officials said the White House wasn't "gravitating" toward any one of the options at this point.
|Kerry advocates for more war from Indonesia|
Secretary of State John Kerry has been a leading advocate of re-examining the options, from using long-range missiles to prevent the Assad regime from flying its aircraft and creating humanitarian zones to training the opposition to hold territory outside the regime's control and keep out al Qaeda-linked groups, U.S. officials and European diplomats said.
Mr. Kerry recently discussed military and intelligence options in Syria in a private meeting with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2012, according to an official close to Mr. Petraeus. While CIA director, Mr. Petraeus, a former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, was a leading behind-the-scenes advocate of aiding the rebels in Syria.
Officials said it is unclear how serious the White House is about reconsidering the options for the U.S. to influence the course of the three-year-old Syrian war, which has claimed more than 140,000 lives. But officials said the re-evaluation has increasing support within the military and the U.S. intelligence community.
The White House declined to comment on any specific options under reconsideration.
"As the president has made clear, we are constantly looking at what options we can take to resolve the crisis in Syria. We are going to continue to work with all of the parties concerned to try to move forward on a diplomatic solution," said White House National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the White House with military options in meetings in 2012 and 2013, officials say, and has consistently been a leading voice of caution about using them.
He outlined several of the options—and what he described as the drawbacks—in a letter to lawmakers last July. Pentagon officials said those options haven't changed since then.
President Barack Obama and some of his top advisers have been reluctant to expand U.S. involvement in the conflict because of fears that even limited action could suck the U.S. into a messy and costly new war.
Officials said advocates of reconsidering the options don't believe Russia will pressure Syria to agree to a transitional government unless it believes the U.S. is prepared to act more forcefully.
They note that Russia decided to push Syria to give up its chemical weapons last year after Mr. Obama threatened military strikes in response to a large-scale chemical weapons attack.
Among options under reconsideration is one that would supplement the Central Intelligence Agency's limited, covert arming and training program for moderate rebels by creating a parallel training mission led by U.S. Special Operations forces.
A military train-and-equip mission, officials said, could focus on training rebels in ways to counter al Qaeda and hold territory outside the Assad regime's control. Officials say it would take months to get such a program off the ground and that other options would have a more immediate impact, with the goal of changing Mr. Assad's and Russia's calculations about the regime's staying power to bring them back to the negotiating table.
One U.S. concern is that the Assad regime could retaliate against Jordan, where an expanded training mission (IS and HAS BEEN) would take place, officials said.
As part of the train-and-equip option, military planners have proposed creating a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there, according to U.S. officials.
Military planners say that creating an area to train and equip rebel forces would require keeping Syrian aircraft well away from the Jordanian border.
Last year, the U.S. moved Patriot air defense batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan. Both would be integral to a no-fly zone if Mr. Obama approves the use of that option. U.S. planes have air-to-air missiles that could destroy Syrian planes from long range. But officials said aircraft might be required to enter Syrian air space if threatened by advancing Syrian planes.
Military officials say the Pentagon remains prepared to carry out the options outlined to the White House last year.
"We have forces in the region. We have ships in the Med. Everything we need to carry out a military option is there," a senior military official said.
The military personnel involved in training could operate under CIA authority, officials say, which would give the U.S. the ability to deny its existence and allow the effort to be expanded.
The White House has so far been wary of authorizing an overt, Pentagon-led training program because it could be construed by Mr. Assad as a more direct act of war, officials say.
Opposition officials have long complained about the small size of the CIA's train-and-equip mission, authorized by Mr. Obama last spring. He initially rebuffed the proposal in 2012 after it was backed by Gen. Petraeus and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But the CIA effort took months to get off the ground and critics inside and outside the administration say it was too small to make a difference against Assad forces aided by Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Russia.
Initially, the CIA program turned out between 50 and 100 "vetted" rebels a month. Officials said, however, that the vetting process was being sped up to allow the CIA to turn out about twice that number of trained rebels. (Which means for quite some time now the CIA has been churning out at least one to two hundred trained mercenaries a month)
At a news conference in Jakarta on Monday, Mr. Kerry accused Russia of enabling the Syrian regime's stepped up military campaign by providing Mr. Assad with more arms, undercutting efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
"Russia needs to be a part of the solution and not be contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they're in fact enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem," Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Kerry said it was important for the international community to consider in the coming days "exactly what steps can now be taken in the face of this intransigence."
Mr Kerry, you and your company of killers need to be part of the solution. Stop training killers. Stop paying killers. Stop arming killers. And this problem, a destabilization issue not a civil war, will end.