NATO’s Syria Misstep

Fresh off NATO’s success in deposing Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi last year, many are calling upon the Western military alliance to do something about Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s yearlong violent repression of a popular uprising. Yet NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been absolutely clear that the alliance will play no such role. “It’s important for me to stress that NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria,” Rasmussen said at a press conference in Washington last month. Last Friday, I heard the secretary general reiterate this message at the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels Forum. “We have no intention to intervene in Syria because it’s quite another case than Libya,” he said.

That Syria is “a different case” than Libya—or any other country for that matter—goes without saying (one important difference, which would seem to work in favor of intervention, is that Syria, unlike Libya, borders a NATO member, in this case Turkey). I’ve argued elsewhere in World Affairs that intervention in Syria makes sense for both moral and strategic purposes, given the Assad regime’s support for terrorism and alliance with Iran. But while there may be valid reasons to be skeptical about aiding the Syrian opposition, whatever happened to the principle of strategic ambiguity? By announcing explicitly that NATO will do nothing about Syria, Rasmussen has given Assad a blank check to continue massacring his own people. As the head of a military alliance composed of 28 states, Rasmussen must defer to his member governments, none of whom have yet backed the opposition’s calls for a no-fly zone over certain parts of the country and targeted air strikes against military installations. But there would be no cost in adopting a public position that is more vague about NATO’s intentions.

Given his experience in dealing with Qaddafi, who never desisted in his bloodlust until he himself was lynched, Rasmussen should know by now that strongly worded statements telling dictators to stop killing do not work. “I really believe that the lack of unity at the UN Security Council has sent a very unfortunate message to the leadership in Damascus, so they have concluded that they could continue their crackdowns on the civilian population,” he said in Brussels last week. By explicitly stating that the world’s greatest military alliance will do nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria, Rasmussen has sent precisely this “very unfortunate message” himself. 

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