NATO’S “victory” in Libya, senior U.S. officials recently wrote, was a “model intervention,” a “teachable moment.” “The first lesson is that NATO is uniquely positioned to respond quickly and effectively to international crises,” the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo H. Daalder, and NATO’s supreme allied commander, Adm. James G. Stavridis, wrote in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs.
But what was it a model for? Not Syria, apparently; to read the article by Mr. Daalder and Adm. Stavridis, it’s not clear why not. NATO responded rapidly to a “deteriorating situation” — sounds like Syria — “that threatened hundreds of thousands of civilians” — check — “rebelling against an oppressive regime” — no daylight there. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has killed some 10,000 civilians since peaceful pro-democracy protests began 15 months ago.
If anything, NATO has more of an interest in defusing Syria’s crisis than Libya’s. Turkey, a NATO member, is on Syria’s border and has seen violence spill into its territory. Other nations are threatened, too; Sunday night a cleric sympathetic to Mr. Assad’s opponents was assassinated in Lebanon. Libya is of modest strategic importance, while the fall of the Assad regime, Iran’s major ally in the Arab world, would have strategic benefits for the United States, Israel and everyone else working to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
And yet, at the summit of NATO leaders in Chicago, no leader raised the subject of Syria, Mr. Daalder said. “We are very much concerned about the situation of Syria,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen explained, but the alliance has “no intention whatsoever to intervene.”
Why not? What happened to the “teachable moment,” just one year old? There’s a hint in the Foreign Affairs article: “The United States facilitated this rapid international reaction,” the authors boast. In truth, the leaders of France and Great Britain prodded the United States into action, and a chief goad, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has since been turned out of office. But it is true that the Libyan action would not have taken place without the promise of substantial U.S. support. On Syria, that promise is missing.
This is mystifying not just because the humanitarian stakes are as great in Syria as in Libya. As with Libya, NATO could support the Syrian opposition without putting its own troops at risk. And the alternative to NATO action in Syria is not just a slower democratic victory, nor even a return to Assad-regime stability. Instead, as we’ve written before, Syria’s conflict, already increasingly violent, might well degenerate into full-blown sectarian warfare; this war could jump into Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, and al-Qaeda would profit murderously from this opportunity.
NATO leaders might feel that if they don’t talk about Syria, these outcomes won’t be blamed on them. They are, after all, preoccupied in their search for the exit from Afghanistan. But President Obama and his allies cannot shirk this issue indefinitely. As Syria burns, the Libya “victory” rings increasingly hollow.