Despite all the risks, the international community should intervene militarily in Syria to stop the carnage even without Russian support or a Security Council resolution, a former US ambassador to NATO tells DW.
Kurt Volker served as US ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009. He is currently a professor of practice at Arizona State University, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University and a senior advisor of the Atlantic Council of the United States.
DW: President Barack Obama recently asked the Pentagon to sketch out possible military options concerning Syria, but has called military action premature. Are there any circumstances that you think would make the White House seriously consider military action against Damascus?
Kurt Volker: I know that the US and other allies do not want to go forward with any kind of military operation. And the reasons why are the well-rehearsed reasons we heard before the intervention in Libya, the well-rehearsed reasons we heard before the intervention in Kosovo, the well-rehearsed reasons before the intervention in Bosnia. So we know them all: 'It's difficult, it's complex, there are defenses, more violence is not the answer, who are we going to be helping, what comes afterwards, we don't know who these people are.' We have heard all that.
In those other cases, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya you did see a Western intervention in order to stop violence and establish some kind of stability in which people could get on and avoid being killed. They haven't always worked out perfectly. Of course they haven't. These are very difficult things. But leaving the killing to go on is also unacceptable.
So in my mind the trigger on Syria is: How many more people have to die? We have seen thousands die already. Is it going to be 10,000 more? Is it going to take 20,000 more? Or will we just not intervene at all and just let that happen? From my perspective, that is completely unacceptable. What we are seeing now is already at a stage where we should have intervened. Not the US unilaterally, but working together with other countries in the region Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Qatar and others who care about the killing that is going on. And I think the US needs to show a bit more leadership on this to arrange and work with such a coalition, not to act unilaterally or dictate, but to build that kind of international effort to stop Assad from killing his own people the way he is doing.
But a main obstacle to bringing more international pressure to bear on Syria is of course Russia. Could the US or Europe do anything else to make Moscow end its support of the Assad regime?
No, we have to assume that Russia is not going to support that. Again going back to Kosovo, we didn't have a UN Security Council resolution authorizing an air campaign in Kosovo. Russia was opposed to the air campaign in Kosovo. And yet we felt it was essential anyway because the Serbian paramilitaries were killing wantonly and driving a million and a half people out of their homes. So we acted anyway. I think Russia is being extremely irresponsible and is playing a very cynical role here. But that's a fact and we just have to accept it and decide - given that we are not going to have Russia, given that we are not going to have a UN Security Council resolution - what can we do anyway.
NATO was instrumental in the ousting of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but neither the US nor Europe have so far talked about NATO in conjunction with Syria. Do you see a possible role for NATO in the Syrian context?
First, I don't think NATO ousted Gadhafi, it was the Libyan rebels supported by France, the UK, the UAE, Qatar that ousted Gadhafi. NATO's mandate was to protect civilians and to do the air campaign which it did. So I would draw a distinction there precisely because it was many countries in NATO that opposed any kind of combat role, didn't take part in the air campaign. Germany as you know withdrew its naval vessels from near Libya because they might be involved in combat. So I think it's wrong to say that NATO ousted Gadhafi. It was a coalition of countries that ousted Gadhafi.
Similarly, I don't see any prospect that NATO as NATO is going to do anything about Syria. There will be many countries that will refuse to act without a UN Security Council resolution and there won't be one. In addition, there will many countries that will refuse to engage in combat operations and many that don't have the capability anymore to take on combat operations. So I think it's much more likely that you would see a coalition of countries that might involve the US, Turkey, the UK, possibly France, Saudi-Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar that could get involved in Syria. And I think it would be up to individual NATO countries to consider whether they would be comfortable taking part in such an operation or not.
The US has recently changed its strategy vis-à-vis Syria and is now providing non-military support to the Syrian opposition. What does that aid consist of and how effective is it?
I don't know the details of what that aid consists of, but I think it's largely humanitarian. And I think it's completely ineffective. Not to say it's a bad thing to do, but we have to recognize that there is a war going on and that the vast preponderance of force is on the side of Assad and the government. And he is using it to bombard and besiege his own cities and wholesale destroy parts of the population of Syria. And we are not doing anything to prevent that. We may be putting a bandage on a gaping, open wound, but we are not doing anything to stop more of those wounds being created.
Are there any additional non-military measures the US and the EU could deploy to increase the pressure on the Assad regime?
There is a fine line between military and non-military. So for example: Trying to do some things to degrade Assad's ability to conduct these kinds of attacks, jamming for instance or giving communications equipment to some of the rebels, helping them to coordinate themselves a little big better.
I think an important issue has to be, if we were to engage more militarily, to both use air power to exact Assad's forces while on the ground working with neighboring countries like Turkey and others to try to create some kind of safety zone where you could deliver humanitarian assistance where people could flee to and opposition forces could try to coordinate. Right now they are under such physical pressure that it's difficult for opposition forces even to talk to each other.
Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge