Instead, European leaders who once pushed a cautious Obama administration into action are far more likely now to toe the line on Syria as their energy is expended on protecting their fragile currency. That leaves the fragmented Syrian opposition with no Western partner willing to commit to a significant role in helping to oust President Bashar al-Assad, even as he escalates his iron-fisted tactics to suppress dissent. The United Nations has blamed his government in the massacre last week of more than 100 civilians in the village of Houla.
As the death toll in the 14-month-old uprising rises to more than 10,000, according to U.N. estimates, Syrian opposition leaders have decried the U.S. and European reluctance to come to their aid. But officials on both sides of the Atlantic say Syria is far more complex than Libya was, and many question whether military intervention would actually help.
Asked Thursday whether he could envision a situation in which the United States would take military action in Syria without U.N. authorization, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said, “No, I cannot envision that because, look, as secretary of defense, my greatest responsibility is to make sure when we deploy our men and women in uniform and put them at risk, we not only know what the mission is, but we have the kind of support we need to accomplish that mission.”
Speaking in Denmark, a key member of last year’s campaign against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged Thursday that on Syria, “we’re nowhere near putting together any type of coalition other than to alleviate the suffering.”
Clinton said the United States has been cautious for many reasons. Unlike in Libya, there is no unified opposition against Assad, and those fighting his rule don’t control significant territory. The Syrian military is much stronger than Gaddafi’s. The Arab League has not called for military intervention, as it did in Libya. And the prospect of a sectarian civil war that could engulf the region is also worrying.
European leaders have echoed those concerns. They are also keenly aware that they can do little without the aid of superior U.S. capabilities to destroy antiaircraft systems, refuel in mid-flight and carry out complex reconnaissance and targeting.
In March 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened late-night meetings to push an on-the-fence United States into a major bombing campaign as Libyan government forces surrounded the rebellious city of Benghazi.
More than a year later, Gaddafi is gone, killed near his home town. But Sarkozy is out, too, and so is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Sarkozy’s ally in the Libyan intervention, both victims of politics.