NATO has had  “no planning, no discussion, and no thought” of action in Syria, declared Ivo Daalder, the US permanent representation to NATO.

In a speech to the Atlantic Council on the eve of a meeting with President Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Daalder focused on the successes and lessons learned from the operation in Libya which has now formally ended. (Given the announced title “An Irreplaceable Alliance: The Impact of the Libya Mission on NATO,” this was not surprising.)

Syria was not mentioned even in passing. But the first question from the audience raised a subject that has been bantered about for months: If there is a Responsibility to Protect and Libya is a model for future NATO missions, why not deal with arguably more pressing atrocities in Syria?

Daalder gave the most cogent answer to that question I’ve seen. The Libya mission was based on a clear formula: “there needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action.” Daalder argued that “None of them apply in Syria.”

On the face of it, he’s right. In Libya, there was arguably an imminent slaughter in Benghazi, the rebels had pleaded for international assistance, the Arab League had urged action, and the United Nations Security Council lent legitimacy to the intervention with Resolution 1973. None of those conditions obtain in Syria.

On the other hand, a UN report published last month says more than 3000 civilians have been killed by the government of Bashar al-Assad since the uprisings began in mid-March. And the Arab League says some 70,000 people have been taken political prisoner by the regime, many of them tortured. And a full-scale assault on Homs is now underway. So, it’s rather difficult to see how a “demonstrable need” is absent here.

It’s true that both Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown last month. But the resolution was strongly backed by the United States, France, the UK, Germany, and Portugal. If there’s actually a responsibility to protect, one would think the consensus of the most important NATO allies would be enough, regardless of the views of the authoritarian governments on the Security Council.

Presumably, the real reason NATO intervened in Libya and not Syria is practical: Libya is within easy flight of Italian air bases and American aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and Syria isn’t. Given how much of a strain even the Libya mission was on the European allies, it’s difficult to see how they could pull off a fight in Syria. Especially having already depleted their stores of ammunition in Libya. 

Then again, Syria shares a border with a key NATO ally: Turkey. While the Erdogan government was opposed to the Libya intervention and initially reluctant to condemn its long-time friend in Syria, they’ve recently staked their ground in support of the opposition. If Turkey decides that foreign intervention is necessary, will NATO follow? 

Thus far, there’s no evidence of that. Despite the leading allies going to the UN and issuing stern words against the veto, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been adamant that “NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria.” Maybe the difference really is so simple as Gadaffi having announced his intention to exterminate his people while Assad has just quietly gone about the business of doing it. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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