Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has lost all claims to legitimacy, and, in turn, its ability to persuasively argue that Syrian sovereignty should be respected. So why hasn’t NATO intervened Libya-style, to oust dictator?
First, Syria has allies that Libya did not – Russia and China, which defend Syria at the UN by vetoing Security Council resolutions – and Iran and Hezbollah, which, along with Russia, supply Syria with the arms and trained soldiers used to fight the ill-equipped and poorly organized rebel forces.
Russia and China want to uphold the principles of sovereignty (per Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “Only Syria can decide the fate of Assad”), and strike human rights abuses and the loss of governmental legitimacy down as reasons for intervention. Russia and China have poor human rights records, and the Russian and Chinese people may have good reasons to challenge their own governments' legitimacy in the future. These states would prefer to quash dissent without foreign meddling, so they support Assad in his own efforts to resist being overthrown.
The Assads are also long-time allies of Russia. Russia’s last remaining naval base in the Mediterranean is in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus, its struggling defense industry does not want to lose its lucrative arms contracts with Assad (it already lost billions as a result of UN sanctions against Libya and Iran), and it has about $19 billion worth of investments in Syrian infrastructure. Iran and Hezbollah are Shiite, as are the ruling Alawites, and both benefit enormously from their ability to operate freely within Syrian borders, where they transport arms and resources that aid Hezbollah’s efforts against Israel and the Lebanon.
Second, while NATO could depose Assad with ease, the unpredictable fallout from such a move makes it wary. The United States, in particular, has good reason to be cautious, given its previous engagements in Libya, which is struggling to consolidate its democratic institutions, and Afghanistan and Iraq, where sectarianism continues to thwart efforts at political restructuring. If NATO were to intervene and help the rebels overthrow the Assad regime, member states would have to work together to establish viable Syrian political institutions and foster a sustainable civil society that prevents sectarian divisions from renewing the civil war. Further, a military intervention would cause friction between NATO states and Syria's allies, intensifying the West’s tensions with Iran and Hezbollah, and thwarting Russian efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict politically. The latter would come at a particularly bad time, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is working assiduously to construct an image of Russia as a willing and reasonable member of the international community. A United States-led intervention in Syria would sour relations with Russia, sink all hope of a mutually agreed reduction in nuclear weapons, end talks regarding the development of a shared ballistic missile defense system, and put an end to Russian support of the United States’ far-reaching war against the world’s terrorist organizations.
Third, a government installed in Syria at the behest of Western powers will suffer the intense ire of Al-Qaeda and other adversaries of the United States. Al-Qaeda is backing the best organized and best equipped armed faction of the rebel groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization which the United States and other Western powers could not risk including in post-conflict state building. It is of the utmost importance that a new Syrian government have a broad base of popular support, and that Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups are prevented from fomenting divisiveness and a return to conflict. Afghanistan is an ongoing example of the inherent dangers of such a situation: the Taliban has significant public support in the country, thanks, in part, to a strong public relations campaign, while Karzai, seen by many as a Western puppet – recently attempted to change his reputation by accusing the US of colluding with the Taliban.
The Obama administration’s move to supply the rebels with arms, which received loud support from Senator John McCain and others, could well be the thin edge of the wedge with regard to direct military intervention. But it would be a huge mistake. Instead, the United States and Russia must work together to persuade Assad to withdraw, and then work with various Syrian factions to find a sustainable political solution. This will not be easy, given Russia’s level of commitment to Assad's regime. It will require a good deal of diplomatic dexterity on the part of the United States, and compromises on other issues benefit Putin. Meanwhile, the broader international community must ensure that Syrians see the outcome as authentically Syrian. In the immediate term, this means offering resources and trainings aimed at establishing the institutions and practices of a civil society in revolution-controlled territory, in order to consolidate revolutionary gains. No one should fool themselves into believing that this can be done quickly. Given a disorganized and ill-equipped Syrian National Coalition, foreign governments will have to be creative, andeither support the revolution indirectly or reform the Coalition itself. The future of the Syrian revolution is far from predictable; what is certain, however, is that it is far from over.