The West has no military option for Syria – no matter how often it talks about it. Neither NATO nor the Europeans will go after the regime with force. Instead of acting as if there were still a military option available, it would be wiser to focus totally on a diplomatic solution.
The pictures and news from Syria are abominable. Yet no one should allow the pictures to lead into daring a military intervention. The military option is like the nuclear deterrent: it is only politically effective if it is credible. This is not the case in Syria.
The military option, first put into play by France’s first female head of state François Hollande,* is an empty threat. Ruler Bashar al-Assad does not really need to fear that NATO or the Europeans will go after him with force because they cannot do it and nor do they want to.
They cannot do it because neither the EU nor NATO are at present in the position to launch an intervention in Syria that would with certainty be a few degrees bigger and more dangerous than the Libyan campaign. The coffers of the defense ministers are empty. At the end of the Libyan War, NATO’s munitions had almost run out and the arsenals cannot yet have been replenished.
In addition, all of the allied countries have the militarily difficult and also financially burdensome withdrawal from Afghanistan in front of them. For that reason alone, Damascus can relatively calmly watch the speculation about a military intervention.
And even if NATO wanted to, it doesn’t want to – and that holds true for the U.S., as well. In principle, Washington never takes the military option off the table, and the Americans, incidentally, are the only ones that believe that. But even if Barack Obama were not entering an election as a president who ends wars instead of beginning new ones, the Americans, like their European partners, have learned that interventions on humanitarian grounds seldom result in what one hoped for.
No one knows exactly who the rebels are and what a post-Assad Syria would look like. What primarily stands in the way of an intervention in Syria is its geostrategic position in one of the most dangerous crisis regions in the world. The wish to help some rebels does not justify the risk of setting the whole region – including Iran and Lebanon – on fire.
Instead of acting as if one somehow still has a military option, it would be wiser to focus totally on a diplomatic solution. To be sure, the EU and NATO would have to depart from some of their own illusions here. There will be no solution according to purely European wishes.
To peacefully resolve the inner-Syrian conflict, Russia and Iran must be actively involved. Moscow has geostrategic interests in Syria that one can be annoyed about, but which one must, however, factor in. And Tehran holds a mutual assistance pact with Damascus that should not be ignored. The primary goal of all international efforts must therefore not be a change of regime in Damascus, but rather the end of fighting. Only then does change become possible.
Former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who worked out the cease-fire and peace plan that has not been working up to now, is therefore following the right instinct by increasingly seeking to involve Russia and Iran in the search for a way out of the Syrian catastrophe. Both can hardly be interested in a lasting hot spot in Syria that brings their own interests into jeopardy.
As much as the Europeans like to resist it, Assad is not only the problem but also – for the time being – part of the solution. As long as he sits firmly in the saddle, one needs to negotiate with him, because only he can call back his tanks.
*Editor's note: François Hollande is male.