A no-fly zone now makes sense. Perhaps if the Libya intervention had never happened, Western and regional powers might be prepared to take on such a task. But Libya exhausted NATO's resources and outraged Russia, China, and other countries that said they had voted only for a more modest no-fly zone. Russia and China will see to it that the U.N. Security Council never approves a resolution authorizing such an attack. And there is little evidence that any of the likely participants in a new effort -- the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- have any appetite for ambitious military action in Syria, especially absent U.N. approval.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has asked the United Nations to establish a safe haven, but the Turks know perfectly well that Russia and China would veto such a resolution. The Turks, who are deeply worried about the destabilizing effect of the massive influx of Syrian refugees, now thought to number over 250,000, could establish a safe haven on their own, but apparently have no intention of doing so. While in Turkey in mid-August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey were setting up a working group to study a no-fly zone and other options. But one U.S. intelligence official with whom I spoke said that no serious military planning for a no-fly zone was currently under way.
Administration officials say that they cannot act without Turkey, but complain that Turkish political and diplomatic leaders barely speak to the Turkish military, which has shown no interest in military action. That may be true, but U.S. officials seem all too happy to use Turkey the way Turkey uses the U.N.: to avoid blame for failing to take action. With the U.S. president trying to get reelected by a public that is paying as little attention as it can to the world beyond America's borders, the White House does not want to be dragged into a foreign campaign that could turn ugly. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland immediately rejected Davutoglu's safe-haven plea, saying that the United States wants to help the refugees get to Turkey, not protect them inside Syria.
One administration official said to me that because the rebels are now winning, outside intervention has become unnecessary. But that, too, sounds like a mighty convenient excuse for inaction. Assad may eventually lose his battle with the rebels, but many more thousands of Syrians are likely to die before he does, and an already poisonous atmosphere will become yet more lethal. Because it is now beyond obvious that Assad will leave only if he fears death or imminent defeat, the end must come with a rebel victory. And if the United States wants the rebels to win, then it should be doing everything it can to help them win -- and win in a way that prevents a post-Assad Syria from degenerating into Iraq. Nor do you have to be John McCain to believe that the United States needs to range itself on the right side of history.