Once upon a time, there was place called Libya run by an evil and nutty ruler. When his subjects rose up against him, he killed hundreds and threatened to massacre thousands more. A good king in a far away land wanted to do something to stop him. He had two choices: send his army alone; or team up with fellow kings who would share the noble task. He chose the latter; thereby avoiding owning yet another faraway kingdom (see Iraq and Afghanistan). The good kings managed to help the Libyan people defeat the evil ruler. And they all lived happily ever after, except for the Libyans of course who with too many guns and gripes, are proving ungovernable, thereby validating the good king's caution.
Syria isn't Libya. Of the choices then available to President Obama to aid the Libyan opposition against a brutal dictator: intervene unilaterally in some fashion; or construct a collective intervention backed by the United Nations Security Council, the Arab League with NATO as implementing arm, he wisely chose the second, messy and complex as it was. And it worked, at least in the sense that Qadhafi and his regime are gone at a relatively low cost to the United States.
The situation in Syria—like the Assad family itself—is truly idiosyncratic. None of the Arab spring's modes of regime change seem appropriate for getting rid of the Assads: (1) the Egyptian model—dictator overthrown by his own people because the military acquiesces, even participates; (2) the Yemen model—Arab backed diplomacy facilitated by the United States eases the strongman out; and (3) the Libyan model—collective military intervention The first has yet to materialize and the second won't.
As for what's behind door number three—the answer is—it's not a realistic possibility. For the time being, Syria has serious allies (two of whom are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) and Iran, a sophisticated air defense system; weapons of mass destruction; and the regime confronts an opposition that is neither unified nor able to secure discrete areas of the country which it can defend for long periods of time or from which it can be supplied or launch operations. The Arab League has proven feckless, even an unintentional enabler. And Syria's neighbors – Iraq, Jordan, Israel or Turkey either lack the will, capacity, or motivation to truly threaten the Assads.
What is happening in Syria is a horrible thing to watch . And it will get worse before it gets worse. When the Assads do fall we will all—quite predictably—beat ourselves up wondering what more we could have or should have done that would have prevented thousands more deaths.
But right now, the political, practical, and psychological obstacles standing in the way of effective unilateral or collective military interventions are just too great. Additional sanctions, clandestine military and intelligence support for the opposition; and a contact group on Syria to orchestrate political and economic pressure will have to do. If the Turks and key Arab states would agree, you might work to create safe zones and humanitarian corridors: but these would need to be protected. And who has the stomach for that? The hope of course is for the proverbial inside job where an Alawi cabal of military and security officials makes common cause with Sunnis and takes out key members of the Assad family or stages a serious military challenge.
Great powers behave hypocritically and in contradictory fashion; indeed, it's part of their job description. And whatever precedents were set by the Libya model, no one has a good plan for effective military intervention in Syria: a country wracked by confrontation between a brutal and still powerful regime, and a courageous but still weak opposition, all of which is playing out against growing sectarian violence. It's a bloody tale; and there are no good kings poised to ride to the rescue.
About Aaron David Miller Former Adviser to Republican and Democrat Secretaries of State
Brian Katulis Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress
Jamie M. Fly Former Director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the National Security Council
Ammar Abdulhamid Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
James Robbins Senior Fellow at the the American Foreign Policy Council