by Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, April 26 (Xinhua) -- The United States remains wary of diving headlong into military conflict in war-ravaged Syria after reports this week that Syrian government forces may have used chemical weapons in fightings against the armed opposition.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday that he believed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has twice used chemical weapons on a "small scale," but added that more proof was needed and that Washington was not ready to get involved in the conflict.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that any use of chemical weapons would be tantamount to crossing a "red line" that could push the United States closer to military intervention in Syria.
Reiterating that stance on Friday at a White House joint press briefing with visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II, Obama called the use of chemical weapons in Syria a "game changer," but added that his administration would continue to assess the situation.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government insisted that it has not used any such weapons. U.S. media on Friday quoted an anonymous official as saying that the Syrian government "did not and will not use chemical weapons even if it had them."
Allegations of the use of chemical weapons have stirred talk in U.S. media over the possibility of a U.S.-backed no-fly zone similar to the one established in Libya before the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
However, Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told Xinhua that Syria's air defenses are more advanced, more ably manned, more extensive and better maintained than Libya's were, which would pose risks to NATO aircraft and crews.
Syria also has chemical weapons-tipped missiles and likely has stockpiles of chemical weapons-armed heavy artillery shells, and a no-fly zone would not prevent Syrian ground troops from using chemical weaponry, added White, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office.
ARMING SYRIAN REBELS
With an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan to deal with, a military slated for heavy budget cuts, and NATO's limited resources, Washington would likely opt for an operation that minimizes risks, White noted.
Options might include launching a devastating airstrike against chemical weapons storage facilities or strikes against Syrian combat aircraft or heavy artillery positions. Others might include joint operations with several partners to provide weaponry for rebels not affiliated with Islamic extremists, but a rash of hurdles come with that choice, he said.
"Providing arms to the rebels has become a dicey affair because the leading rebel forces taking on the Syrian Army most effectively have become largely Islamic extremist -- openly al- Qaeda affiliated in many cases -- over the past 12 to 15 months," White said, adding that the move could result in at least some weaponry falling into the hands of Islamic radicals.
SYRIA IS NOT LIBYA
Critics questioned why Obama intervened in Libya but remains hesitant to intervene in embattled Syria, where the war has been raging for more than two years.
White noted that the bulk of populated Libya lies along the coast, providing an easier escape route for damaged aircraft to exit Libyan airspace. But most targets in Syria would be far deeper inland, increasing the exposure of aircraft to anti- aircraft defenses and heightening chances that a pilot in trouble would land inside hostile territory, said the scholar.
Moreover, a period of prolonged instability followed Gaddafi's fall, a scenario that could more darkly play out in Syria -- with the most extreme militants wielding considerably more clout than in Libya and a very high potential for widespread vengeance against previously pro-government populations.
CHEMICAL WEAPONS MAY NOT HELP SYRIAN GOVERNMENT
Meanwhile, Stratfor, a global intelligence company, argued in an article available to subscribers that Assad's chemical warfare option, though capable of severely weakening the opposition forces, will not solve the government's problems.
"Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces are depleted, beleaguered and in many instances isolated from the chemical weapons network. A serious logistical and command and control effort would be required for the mass deployment of chemical weapons," the company said.