The Cable

Top Democrat endorses Syria no-fly zone

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) endorsed Tuesday the idea of establishing a no-fly zone inside Syria and attacking the air defenses and air power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Levin chaired a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday morning during which he asked Adm. James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, if NATO was discussing attacking Assad's air defenses. Stavridis acknowledged the idea was under discussion but said there was no unified NATO position on the issue.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) then asked Stavridis if NATO is doing contingency planning for military operations inside Syria.

"We are looking at a wide range of operations, and we are prepared, if called upon, to be engaged as we were in Libya," Stavridis replied.

Stavridis said that the NATO Patriot missile batteries currently deployed in Turkey have the capability to shoot down Syrian military aircraft in a radius of 20 miles. McCain pressed Stavridis to give his personal opinion as to whether or not establishing a Patriot battery-enforced no-fly zone in northern Syria would speed the end of the conflict.

"My personal opinion is that would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime," Stavridis said.

After the hearing, Levin directly endorsed the idea of attacking Syrian air defenses and using the Patriot missile batteries in Turkey to establish a no-fly zone inside Syria in an interview with The Cable.

"I believe there should be the next ratcheting up of military effort and that would include going after some of Syria's air defenses," Levin said.

Regarding the establishment of a no-fly zone inside Syria, Levin said that would help both protect innocent civilians and speed the end of the conflict.

"You could protect that kind of a zone with these Patriot missiles, leaving the missiles in Turkey but having the zone inside the Syrian border," he said. "It is a way without putting boots on the ground and in a way that would be fairly cautious, that would put additional pressure on Assad and also create a zone where Syrian people who are looking for protection and safety could come without crossing the border and becoming refugees."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Tuesday called for the United States to put boots on the ground in Syria to secure chemical weapons sites, in light of new allegations that chemical weapons were used in Aleppo province.

Levin said it might come to that at some point and that the U.S. military should be prepared.

"We have to have that option," he said. "If [chemical weapons] are going to run free and fall into the hands of terrorists, we have to have some option of securing those, particularly if there's going to be a disintegration in Syria."

The Cable

Graham calls for American boots on the ground in Syria

In the face of new reports alleging chemical weapons use in Syria, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called Tuesday for the United States to put American troops inside Syria to secure the WMD sites there.

The Syrian regime and the Syrian rebels have each accused the other of using chemical weapons in a rocket attack in Aleppo province that killed at least 25 people. A Reuters photographer at a hospital receiving victims of the attack relayed that victims "said that people were suffocating in the streets and the air smelt strongly of chlorine." The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately backed the regime's claim that the rebels had used chemical weapons.

Graham told The Cable in an interview Tuesday that whether or not the attack can be confirmed as the first use of chemical weapons in the 24-month Syrian civil war, the United States must devise and implement a plan to secure Syrian chemical weapons sites and deploy U.S. troops to do it if necessary.

"My biggest fear beyond an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is the chemical weapons in Syria falling in the hands of extremists and Americans need to lead on this issue. We need to come up with a plan to secure these weapons sites, either in conjunction with our partners [or] if nothing else by ourselves," Graham said.

Asked if he would support sending U.S. troops inside Syria for the mission, Graham said yes.

"Absolutely, you've got to get on the ground. There is no substitute for securing these weapons," he said. "I don't care what it takes. We need partners in the region. But I'm here to say, if the choice is to send in troops to secure the weapons sites versus allowing chemical weapons to get in the hands of some of the most violent people in the world, I vote to cut this off before it becomes a problem."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the U.S. government is still evaluating the intelligence from Syria, but downplayed the regime's accusation.

"We have no evidence to substantiate the charge that the opposition has used chemical weapons. We are deeply skeptical of a regime that has lost all credibility. And we would also warn the regime against making these kinds of charges as any kind of pretext or cover for its use of chemical weapons," Carney said.

"We are evaluating the charges that are being made and the allegations, consulting closely with our partners, in the region and in the international community," he added.

President Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a red line for the United States, but Carney refused to say what the administration would do if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed.

"I wouldn't care to speculate about what consequences would take place if it were to be found that the regime had used chemical weapons," Carney said. "But on the general principle, the president made very clear that the use of chemical weapons, and I quote, ‘is and would be totally unacceptable.' And he warned the Syrian regime in particular that ‘there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable.'"

Graham said that regardless of whether chemicals weapons use in Syria can be confirmed, the United States needs to step up its contingency planning for such an event and proactively implement a strategy to secure the sites now.

"I can confirm the fact that the chemical weapons are all over Syria and if somebody doesn't plan how to secure these weapons they are going to work their way back to the U.S. and around the world, that I can promise you," he said. "If there was a chemical weapons attack today, that is a change in the conducting of the war and it should remind us what's available in Syria and what would we risk as a nation if these weapons fall into the wrong hands. And they are going to and somebody has to do something about it and that somebody has to be us."

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images