The main group representing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Washington is calling for the United States and the international community to forcibly establish a partial no-fly zone in Syria for the first time since the 18-month revolution began.
The Syrian regime's increased use of air power to attack Syrian cities, combined with the increased control over land by the Syrian rebels, makes the idea viable, said Louay Sakka, co-founder of the Syrian Support Group (SSG), in an interview with The Cable.
The SSG is the main link between the U.S. government and the FSA and has emerged in recent months as the key organization in Washington dealing directly with the internal Syrian political and military leadership.
"This is right now the time for a no-fly zone to take place. We need to stop the fixed-wing and helicopters from attacking," Sakka said. "The regime cannot hold ground without air power or heavy artillery. Things have changed in many ways. The fighter jets cannot attack only the FSA; they have random targeting and that means a lot casualties: children, women, older people, people who have nothing to do with the fight, and they are dying in huge numbers."
The SSG's call for a no fly zone comes just as reports are surfacing that the Syrian military closed off the Damascus suburb of Daraya last week and began a brutal assault resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. Some 30,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries last week alone, pushing the external refugee total over the 200,000 mark, according to U.N. figures.
But an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Cable that the White House is still resisting any move that would see U.S. military assets used inside Syria, such as through a no-fly zone, but opponents of intervention are slowly losing ground.
"It's a Donilon call at the end of the day," the official said, referring to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who is leading a complicated interagency policy process on the Syria crisis. "There's not enthusiasm but there are differences of opinion about a no-fly zone," the official said. "There is no rush to do it."
The Assad regime's lack of use of fixed-wing aircraft was cited internally as a reason not to declare at no-fly zone and that reason no longer applies, the official argued. Opponents of a no-fly zone have also argued that the Syrian internal opposition had not formally requested it. That reason is also no longer operative.
"There's a question of whether or not our government is willing to reject the request. Or they could take it into consideration for a long time," the official said. "There's a recognition that some decision has to be made. We are quickly reaching a turning point due to the escalation."
The official confirmed that rebels are taking a serious toll on the regime's armor in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, pushing the regime to rely more heavily on its air superiority and massive artillery bombardments.
"These local rebel groups are gaining in organization and territory but they are there's still a significant gap in their capacity to fight back against the 500-pound bombs being dropped by regime aircraft," the official said, but warned, "No other countries are going to go all in until they see what the Americans are going to do."
The French government is pushing the Obama administration toward a decision, as in Libya a year ago. French President François Hollande said Monday that France would recognize a rebel government if the Syrian opposition declared one, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signaled support for a no-fly zone last week.
Sakka said that based on his interactions with Obama administration officials, he believes that U.S. involvement in a no-fly zone is being seriously considered now.
"If we brought it up a few weeks ago [to the administration], their reaction was ‘Don't even think about it.' And now the reaction is ‘We're thinking about it,'" he said. "That's a good step forward. Now we're looking for them to move it from a plan to implementation."
Sakka acknowledges that a no-fly zone would include using foreign military assets to attack Syrian air defenses and perhaps even engage Syrian aircraft directly. Turkey and other countries are ready to move toward that if the United States would agree to the idea, and safe zones already established in Turkey could be expanded to include a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the border inside Syria, he said.
"We need an area inside Syrian soil that we know cannot be attacked by the regime. And that's what we think is doable... This is the minimum required at this stage," Sakka said. "It will be a big mistake down the road not to do this now before the amount of casualties is so big and the amount of destabilization happens that it spreads further outside Syria."
The SSG is working closely with the State Department, especially the office of Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, to increase the U.S. understanding of the internal Syrian opposition. The SSG is also helping various local rebel councils organize into a more coherent chain of command that can communicate effectively both among themselves as well as with outsiders, potentially tackling another key obstacle the United States says stands in the way of more robust and direct American support to the FSA.
The SSG's effort to become the conduit between the U.S. government and the FSA seems to be working. Earlier this summer, the State Department and Treasury Department changed policy to allow the SSG to send cash from the United States to the FSA -- cash the FSA can use for weapons despite the administration's refusal to directly arm the rebels.
One American politician urging intervention is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who was in Paris last week and met with Le Drian, as well as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, National Security Adviser Paul Jean-Ortiz, Foreign Ministry Political Director Jacques Audibert, Hollande's military advisor, Gen. Benoit Puga, Eric Chevallier, the French ambassador to Syria, and members of the Syrian opposition based in Paris.
"I'm very encouraged by the discussions I had with the French leadership about Syria," Lieberman told The Cable from Paris. "As Assad has sharply escalated his use of attack helicopters and fighter aircraft against the Syrian people in recent weeks, there is an increasingly clear and compelling case for a limited no-fly zone. While this would require no U.S. combat forces on the ground, it could have a strategically significant impact by reinforcing the emerging rebel safe zones in northern Syria and allowing the opposition the space they need to organize politically and establish a transitional government on Syrian soil."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.