Now that NATO is closing up shop in Libya, will it turn to Syria?
Right now, the answer is no. But if the fragmented Syrian opposition—bolstered by Turkey, a member of NATO, which is turning increasingly against Syrian President Assad—manages to set up a Benghazi-like enclave either inside Syria or across the border in Turkey, anything goes.
To be sure, there are lots of differences between Libya and Syria. In Libya, an armed opposition backed by wholesale defections from the armed forces, turned a rebellion into a civil war, but so far in Syria the armed forces have mostly stayed loyal to Assad. Libya, a desert with oil wells, was a much easier target than complex, urban Syria, which occupies a vastly more strategic piece of real estate. And, though Russia, China and the Arab League abandoned Muammar Qaddafi, so far it seems unlikely that they’ll do so in Syria.
That hasn’t stopped hawks from suggesting that it’s time to intervene in Syria, too. And some, though not all, of the Syrian opposition is clamoring for military help from the United States and NATO.
Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank founded by AIPAC, last week published a piece titled “Implications of Military Intervention in Syria.” In it, he says:
The debate regarding military intervention in Syria will likely grow in the coming weeks given the regime’s continued violence, the end of NATO intervention in Libya, and the rise of armed opposition fueled by defections from regime forces. … Any military action in Syria should have clear, realistic objectives. A minimal goal would be to establish some measure of protection for the Syrian population, which is currently at high risk. Another goal could be to give the opposition the ability to militarily engage regime forces.
There are various potential courses of action for achieving whatever goals are chosen. To protect the population, for example, intervening parties could establish “safe areas” on Syria’s borders.… In addition, some combination of “no-fly,” “no drive,” and “no shoot” zones could be imposed on Syria to constrain regime military operations.
And John McCain, speaking at an AIPAC meeting in Arizona, stopped just short of calling for military action:
“This is increasingly the question about Syria. The Assad regime has spilled too much blood to stay in power. Its days are numbered, but it will use those days to murder more of its own people. In this way, there is no moral distinction whatsoever between the case of Syria and that of Libya.… The Assad regime should not assume that it can get away indefinitely with mass murder. Qaddafi made that mistake, and it cost him everything.”
Syria’s opposition seems mostly leaning against intervention by NATO, but increasingly there are calls for US and NATO support, a no-fly zone (even though Assad hasn’t used his air force against protesters) and other actions.
In contrast to the United States, which has condemned Assad and called for him to step down, the Arab League is supposedly seeking a dialogue between Assad and the opposition, and a delegation of league officials has formally proposed a plan to the Syrian president. Because the League is dominated by Saudi Arabia, however, and because the delegation to Damascus was led by Qatar, which led the Arab military action against Libya, it seems likely that the Arab League is tilting strongly against Assad. That’s not because the king of Saudi Arabia and his friends in the Gulf Cooperation Council care about dead protesters. More important to them is that there’s a chance to deal a knockout blow to an ally of Iran, a key strategic goal in the Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (Notably, the Iranian foreign minister visited Qatar to “exchange views over regional and international issues,” i.e., Syria.)
NATO has ruled out intervening in Syria, for the time being:
“NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen ruled out the possibility of a no-fly zone for Syria, in remarks to an AFP correspondent as he travelled to the Libyan capital Monday on a surprise visit. ‘It’s totally ruled out. We have no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria,’ Rasmussen said when asked if there was a possibility NATO would now spearhead a no-fly zone in Syria.”
But somehow, things that are “totally ruled out” get ruled in when facts change.