Report: Obama asks Pentagon to draw up plan for no-fly zone in Syria

So yeah, looks like the White House probably approved of McCain’s trip.

Second look at isolationism?

The White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by the U.S. and other countries such as France and Great Britain, two administration officials told The Daily Beast…

President Obama’s dual-track strategy of continuing to pursue a political solution to the two-year-old uprising in Syria while also preparing for more direct U.S. military involvement includes authorizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the first time to plan for multilateral military actions inside Syria, the two officials said. They added that no decisions on actually using force have yet been made…

In a May 8 meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee, the White House tasked several agencies with reporting on the pros and cons of two additional potential courses of action: arming vetted and moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, such as the Free Syrian Army, and formally recognizing the Syrian opposition council as the government of Syria, which would mean removing formal U.S. recognition of the Assad regime…

“This is a Kerry initiative,” an administration official said. “It’s also a test of the veracity of the Russian claims that they are committed to a peaceful outcome that reflects the will of the Syrian people.”

This is, I assume, chiefly a pressure tactic to make Assad nervous and concession-minded at the big peace powwow in Geneva next month. It’s also a lure to get the rebels to the table; right now they’re noncommittal about attending unless Assad first promises to step down, which won’t happen. As noted in the last post, everything’s coming up Bashar lately in Syria: Hezbollah’s vowed publicly to help him win the war, his troops are reclaiming territory needed to maintain their supply lines, and Russia’s sending anti-aircraft missiles to shoo the west away from imposing a no-fly zone. With that kind of momentum, Assad has no incentive to make a deal during peace talks. News about the Pentagon drawing up a NFZ plus the EU lifting its embargo on sending weapons to the rebels gives him something to think about. It’s Obama’s attempt at something of a game-changer without committing to actually doing anything.

Why would Assad take the threat seriously, though? The only way a NFZ will play politically for Obama with American voters is if it’s the same sort of turkey shoot that the Libyan NFZ was — which it won’t be. McCain told the Daily Beast that a realistic plan for a no-fly zone “would include hundreds of planes, and would be most effective if it included destroying Syrian airplanes on runways.” It’d be a huge, aggressive operation, and the presence of those Russian missiles means it might not be without casualties. How’s O going to explain American airmen being killed to influence a war between Sunni fundamentalists and a puppet of Shiite fundamentalists? Western air power would also likely be called on to shoot down Iranian aircraft carrying supplies to Assad, which would end the nuclear-talks charade between Iran and the west (admittedly, not a bad thing) and widen the war in unpredictable ways. Compared to the potential costs, the benefits of intervention are too gassy to rally the public solidly behind military action. War in Libya could be sold as payback for Qaddafi, a longtime enemy and terror supporter (who became a kinda sorta friend in the past decade), and as a humanitarian gesture towards Libyans, whose political sympathies were more obscure after decades of Qaddafism than the Syrian rebels’ are. Assad’s less well known to Americans and, after two years of Islamist flower under the Arab Spring, the fate of Syria after he’s gone is easy to predict. That’s a harsh landscape against which to make the case for a NFZ. Even McCain seems to think it’s a bluff.

If you missed this last month, watch a palpably skeptical Martin Dempsey explain the challenges of a no-fly zone.