The United States is considering calling for a no-fly zone in Syria as it weighs options for intervention into the two-year-old civil war, Western diplomats said Friday after the White House said Syria had crossed a "red line" by using nerve gas.
After months of deliberation, President Barack Obama's administration said Thursday it would now arm rebel forces, having obtained proof the Syrian government used chemical weapons against fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad.
Two senior Western diplomats said the United States was looking into a limited no-fly zone close to Syria's southern border with Jordan.
"Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Al-Assad's opponents," one diplomat said.
Imposing a no-fly zone could require the United States to destroy Syria's sophisticated Russian-built air defences, thrusting it into the war with the sort of action NATO used to help topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya two years ago.
Washington says it has not excluded a no fly zone but is also considering other options.
"We have been clear that we are not excluding options, but at this stage no decision has been taken," said Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations and Obama's incoming national security adviser.
"A no-fly zone ... would carry with it great and open-ended costs for the United States and the international community. It's far more complex to undertake the type of effort, for instance, in Syria than it was in Libya," US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Thursday.
Any such move would also come up against a potential veto from Al-Assad ally Russia in the UN Security Council. The Kremlin dismissed US evidence of Al-Assad's use of nerve gas.
"I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing," President Vladimir Putin's senior foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov said.
In a letter to the UN secretary general, Rice said the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in four attacks between March and May.
Rice provided the dates and locations for the attacks and said sarin was used in two of the attacks in areas close to Aleppo in March and April. Unspecified chemicals were used in the other attacks in May, she said.
The commander of Syria's main rebel fighting force urged Western allies to supply anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and to create a no-fly zone, saying if properly armed he could defeat Al-Assad's army within six months.
Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idriss told Reuters his forces urgently needed heavier weapons in the northern city of Aleppo, where Al-Assad's government has said its troops are preparing a massive assault.
"If we have done the training ... and have enough weapons and ammunition, I think it will be a matter of time, about six months, maybe less, maybe more, to collapse the regime."
France said a no-fly zone would be impossible without UN Security Council authorisation, which made it unlikely for now.
Nevertheless, Washington has quietly taken steps that would make it easier, moving Patriot surface-to-air missiles, war planes and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan, officially as part of an annual exercise, but making clear that the assets could stay on when the war games are over.
Syria's civil war grew out of protests that swept across the Arab world in 2011, becoming by far the deadliest of those uprisings and the most difficult to resolve, with powers across the Middle East squaring off on sectarian lines.
Western countries have spent the past two years demanding Al-Assad leave power but declining to use force as they did in Libya, because of the far greater risk of fighting a much stronger country that straddles sectarian lines at the heart of the Middle East and is backed by Iran and Russia.
Just months ago, Western countries believed Al-Assad's days were numbered. But momentum on the battlefield has turned in his favour, making the prospect of his swift removal and an end to the bloodshed appear remote without outside intervention.
Thousands of fighters from Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbullah militia have joined the war on Al-Assad's behalf and last week helped the Syrian government recapture Qusair, a strategic border town. Al-Assad's government says its troops are now preparing for an assault on Aleppo, mainly in rebel hands since last year.
Activists reported an intensified assault on parts of Aleppo and its countryside near the Turkish border overnight, sparking some of the most violent clashes in months.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the guerrilla group would not be shaken in its support for Al-Assad: "Wherever we need to be, we will be."
The arrival of Shia Hizbullah in the war on behalf of Al-Assad, a member of the Shia offshoot Alawite sect, has exacerbated the war's dangerous sectarian overtones across the tumultuous region. Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood backed a call by Sunni clerics for holy war in the country.
The use of chemical weapons provides a straightforward reason for Washington to intervene. Deputy national security adviser Rhodes said Washington now believed 100 to 150 people had been killed by government poison gas attacks on rebels.
"The president ... has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups is a red line," he said. "He has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."
Syria, which says rebels used chemical weapons, not the government, said the US statement was full of lies.
"The White House ... relied on fabricated information in order to hold the Syrian government responsible for using these weapons, despite a series of statements that confirmed that terrorist groups in Syria have chemical weapons," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
An implicit threat to join the conflict puts Washington on a diplomatic collision course with Moscow, which has used its UN Security Council veto three times to block resolutions that might be used to threaten force against Al-Assad.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said US military support for rebel forces in Syria risked escalating violence in the Middle East.
US officials say Obama will try to persuade Putin to abandon support for Al-Assad when the two leaders meet at a G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week.
Washington and Moscow have called for a peace conference in Geneva, the first attempt in a year by the Cold War foes to find a diplomatic solution to the war, but prospects for the talks even being held on time next month now seem remote.
The United Nations now estimates at least 93,000 people have been killed in Syria and millions driven from their homes.
Western powers have been reluctant in the past to arm the rebels, worried about the rising strength of Sunni Islamist insurgents who have pledged loyalty to Al-Qaeda.