NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 was for the Obama administration what NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was for the Clinton administration. In both cases, the American president committed American military forces to a swift action that was both strategically wise and morally just: halting large flows of refugees while preventing the massacre of many thousands of innocent people by a brutal tyrant. In each case, the intervention helped bring about the overthrow of the tyrant by his own people, and both interventions proved that American power, used through the NATO alliance, could be a force for good in a post-Cold War world experiencing many forms of upheaval.
Unfortunately, over the last two years, Syria has become for Obama what Bosnia was for Clinton: a long, drawn-out conflict which American leadership has long had the ability to help stop, but which the president is very reluctant to get involved in. Though the Bosnian war started before Clinton’s presidency even began, it was not until his third year in office that he drummed up the courage to intervene militarily. Sadly, it took the atrocity of Srebrenica, a massacre of a type not seen in Europe since World War II, to push Clinton to launch air strikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s troops, and force warring ethnic and religious factions to the negotiating table.
The assistance provided by the West to the Syrian opposition thus far, while admirable, will not do much good as long as the Assad regime is still able (and very willing) to slaughter its enemies without mercy. If the killing is to be stopped, there must be a balance of power created on the ground that allows the opposition to force the regime to negotiate. This was the case in both Bosnia and Kosovo: Until Milosevic became convinced that victory on the battlefield would be too costly for his forces, he had no incentive to halt his attempts at violent ethnic cleansing. While Assad is unlikely to go quietly, members of his inner circle might be convinced to stop supporting him (some already have) if a large international force aligned against him makes it impossible for him to maintain his grip on power.
A common argument against Western countries arming the Syrian rebels is that because the U.S. and NATO cannot fully separate the jihadists in the rebel ranks from the more moderate and secular forces, any weapons sent might fall into the hands of extremists. But this is not a strong enough argument against increased U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, the presence of Islamic extremists among the rebels (including some who have aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda) reinforces the argument in favor of intervention. Standing on the sidelines makes it more likely that weapons flowing to the anti-Assad forces (so far coming from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia) will, indeed, fall into extremist hands, while a stronger American presence helps the U.S. help the elements of the resistance it most wants to assist. Having a presence on the ground in Syria allows Americans to distinguish between rebel groups. Not having that presence limits Americans’ actions to speculating about who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.
As for the alleged use of chemical weapons by one or both sides in the conflict, this only adds to the case for intervention. If elements of the Free Syrian Army have used such weapons, direct NATO involvement can give the West leverage to help stop them from using them again. As for the allegations of chemical weapon use by Assad’s forces, an intervention would give the West its best chance at destroying the rest of the Syrian arsenal before it is used once more against the opposition, or possibly transferred to the regime’s friends in Hezbollah.
Western boots on Syrian soil may have been ruled out (probably wisely so), but NATO air and missile strikes can go a long way toward creating the situation that is needed if the killing is to be stopped. The good news is that the death toll in Syria thus far, while certainly tragically high, is currently half of what the final toll in Bosnia turned out to be. There is still time for Obama to lead an intervention before the number rises any higher. Let us hope it does not take a Syrian Srebrenica to push the American president to do so.