Is it time to intervene in Syria?

To Syria hawks, like Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, the solution to the crisis is simple: an American- and NATO-led air war against Assad. But, at the NATO summit in Chicago last week, there was no support for the idea. Proponents of intervention like to point out that Obama’s Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, was the co-author of a piece in Foreign Affairs which said that the “victory” in Libya should serve as a model for future interventions to prevent atrocity and support positive political change. But none of the conditions that worked to NATO’s advantage in Libya—its geographical and political self-containment, Qaddafi’s abandonment, the efficacy of the opposition forces, the ease of executing the mission from the air—pertain in Syria. Instead, the situation has all the makings of just the sort of quagmire that NATO is impatient to get out of: the main item on the agenda in Chicago was to declare the plan to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 “irreversible.”

A few days earlier, at the G8 summit at Camp David, Obama had reiterated his call for Assad to relinquish power, but the Russians continue to regard the Syrian President as he represents himself, as a force of stability. Mikhail Margelov, speaking for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, said, “One cannot avoid a question: if Assad goes, who will replace him?” The hawks have no answer, nor, for that matter, does anybody else, including the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, a coalition of seven infighting factions—ranging from Christians to Kurds to the Muslim Brotherhood—composed almost entirely of exiles, whose only consistent demand is for international military intervention. The Free Syrian Army, an equally unlikely group, shares that goal, but has lately turned against the S.N.C., which now purports to be forming its own military wing.