After 20 months of a bloody uprising and civil war, there are emerging signs Western nations might move to intervene more directly in Syria.
With the U.S. presidential election over, a reluctant President Barack Obama is facing new pressure from allies and some within his own party to take stronger steps to address a deteriorating situation in Syria that threatens to destabilize the region.
Britain and France have both taken steps to force the pace of Western response in recent days, and key congressional figures in the U.S. are now calling on the Obama administration to consider more direct steps, notably establishing a no-fly zone.
At the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend, U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a leading Democrat who sits on the key Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said it’s time to consider a no-fly zone that would thwart attacks on the opposition by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
“Now that our election is over, I urge the Obama administration to consider every option. The status quo is not acceptable,” Mr. Udall told reporters. “The no-fly zone proposal is worthy of some thoughtful consideration.”
That’s a proposal long backed by a few in Washington, such as Republican Senator John McCain, also in Halifax on Saturday. He called it “shameful” that the U.S. has not intervened while 39,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. But Mr. Udall’s call means some key figures in Mr. Obama’s own party want a new approach.
That’s been echoed in some foreign capitals. A new, reformed opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has already been recognized by Turkey and France, which plans to accept the group’s ambassador. Others, though, such as the U.S., still believe the opposition is far from united. British Prime Minister David Cameron convened a meeting of senior cabinet ministers late last week to consider options, including a no-fly zone.
“Now, more and more voices, countries are coming and stating this, because they are saying to Washington, ‘It’s time for you to do something,’” Andrew Tabler, senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview at the Halifax Forum.
Canada, however, remains reluctant to back such a step now. Defence Minister Peter MacKay argued at the forum that the immediate priority remains trying to persuade Russia, a key backer of the Assad regime, to promote a solution and to stop blocking action against the Syrian regime at the UN Security Council.
“We have other diplomatic options to pursue first,” Mr. MacKay said. “One of which is to lean on or call upon Russia, who are influential in these matters, to do more. I think they could have a tremendously constructive role to play.”
War-weary Western nations who are cutting military budgets have been reluctant to consider direct intervention, especially since the Obama administration has shown little taste for such a step. Syria’s divided opposition and sectarian battle lines have led many to wonder if intervention might spark more violence.
Moreover, few believe that a campaign of airstrikes, like those used in Libya, would be effective – and Western nations have no desire to send in ground troops. Mr. McCain insisted that is off limits. “That cannot be an option that is under any consideration anywhere, in my view,” he said. “Americans are war weary, as we all know.”
He said, however, that a no-fly zone could be established without engaging in air battles with the Syrian air force, by setting up batteries of Patriot missiles along the Syrian border that would shoot down Assad regime aircraft.
Mr. MacKay acknowledged those calculations weigh heavily for many when considering intervention now.
“There is the political will to act. There are the resources to act. There is the responsibility not only to consider the intervention, but the aftermath – and how long are we there.”
“I think a lot of countries certainly go through that entire calculation,” he said. “But I think the beginning point, certainly on Syria now, considering how much time is past, and [the thousands of ] lives now lost, is to exhaust that option at the Security Council. And I don’t think Russia can ignore its obligation any longer.”
Mr. McCain, sitting beside Mr. MacKay on a panel at the Halifax Forum – argued that it’s not enough to say Russia is blocking intervention.
Mr. Tabler said he believes Russia is unlikely to bend unless the stalemate changes, and it appears the Assad regime is on its way out. He said he thinks Western nations might first try to establish safe areas – pockets of Syria where the regime will not be allowed to launch attacks on the air or the ground.
“If we continue on the same course, I can’t imagine things will get better. Since intervention has not been tried for 20 months, it would seem that this is the time to do it – the question is how,” he said.