IS IT because America and Europe have tired of their own wars that they have started to turn their back on other people’s? The number of dead in Syria has passed 30,000. Some days over 250 bodies are added to the pile, which brings to mind Iraq at the insurgency’s peak in 2006-07. Were the next few months to stretch into years, as now seems likely, Syria’s great cities would be ground to rubble and the whole Middle East would choke on the dust.
To prevent this catastrophe, NATO needs to start making the humanitarian and strategic case for intervening in Syria. Grounding President Bashar Assad’s air force could save many thousands of lives. Giving the rebels scope to organise and train could help bring the war to an end. Speeding the fall of Mr Assad might give Syria a chance to re-emerge as a nation at peace with itself and its neighbours.
Nothing argues for intervention more forcefully than Mr Assad’s brutal tactics. From the beginning, when his troops fired on peaceful demonstrators, he has used extreme violence. A combination of impunity and desperation has led him to graduate from heavy weapons to aircraft, helicopter gunships and now cluster bombs. The fury of the assault against civilians in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two main cities, explains why the death toll is now mounting fast. Such violence breeds implacable hatred, and so the rebels will fight on.
Mr Assad has also fomented sectarian conflict. By defining the rebels as terrorists backing Syria’s Sunni majority, he hopes to bind minorities to his cause. Thugs from his Alawite sect have sown division with an orgy of murder and rape. Sadly, as time passes, the sectarian lie is coming true. Long-bearded Salafists are fighting under the black banner of extremist Islam. Rebels have started to commit atrocities (see article). As tolerance wanes, so does the hope that Syria can emerge from Mr Assad’s rule as a decent country.
And lastly, Mr Assad is destabilising the region. By enlisting the support of Russia and Iran, he has laid the ground for an interminable proxy war in which Turkey and some Gulf states back the rebels. His forces have traded potshots with Turkey. Refugees are pouring over Syria’s borders. In Lebanon Hizbullah is being sucked in. Militant nationalism is growing among the Kurds (see article). And sectarian tension is rising in Iraq: the Shia-led government supplies Mr Assad, and rebellious Sunnis, including the rump of al-Qaeda, back his opponents.
Syria is facing a long, violent, sectarian civil war that will claim tens of thousands of lives, leave chemical and biological weapons unsecured and destabilise a region of paramount strategic importance. That is something the outside world has both a duty and an interest to prevent. But even if intervening now is the least bloody option, it will still be bloody.
In strictly military terms, the mission is feasible. NATO could enforce a no-fly zone over Syria. It is possible that the mere threat of destroying any airborne Syrian aircraft would keep Mr Assad’s planes on the ground; but America’s military planners might insist on destroying Mr Assad’s air defences anyway (harder than last year’s campaign against Libya, but still possible). The bigger worry, however, is what would follow the establishment of a no-fly zone.