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NATO chief: Intervention just won’t work in Syria

NATO chief: Intervention just won’t work in Syria

Not only will NATO not participate in any military intervention in Syria, NATO assets won’t be used to deliver any military, humanitarian, or medical assistance there, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, because any type of Western intervention is not likely to help solve the crisis.

"We haven’t had any discussions in NATO about a NATO role in Syria and I don’t envision such a role for the alliance," Rasmussen told The Cable in an exclusive interview in Washington Wednesday. "Syria is ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya. This is the reason why the right way forward is different. And I think a regional solution would be the right way forward with strong engagement by the Arab League."

But is order of difficulty the only criterion NATO uses to decide where and when to intervene, we asked Rasmussen? Does NATO feel any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria?

"The guiding question should be: Would it bring a sustainable solution to the problem if we decided to intervene, if we had the legal basis, if we had support from the region?" Rasmussen responded. Even if there was a U.N. mandate for intervention in Syria, the mission simply wouldn’t have a high likelihood of success, he argued. "Syria is different."

No NATO member state has requested NATO begin contingency planning for Syria, and no contingency planning is happening, Rasmussen said. He also said NATO will not engage in arming the Syrian opposition. As for NATO member countries, such as France, Turkey, or the United States, "I take it for granted that all our allies on an individual basis will act within international law" regarding arming the rebels, he said.

Rasmussen also took the opportunity of his interview with The Cable to "clearly denounce" recent statements by Russia’s once and future President Vladimir Putin, who lashed out against NATO and the United States and accused them of supporting a "string of armed conflicts" as part of a scheme to achieve "absolute invulnerability."

"Nobody has the right to hijack the prerogatives and powers of the U.N.," Putin said. "I am referring primarily to NATO, which seeks to assume a new role that goes beyond its status of a defensive alliance."

Rasmussen defended the NATO intervention in Libya, arguing it stayed within the U.N. mandate, and said the Afghanistan mission is also within its U.N. mandate.

"The core task of NATO is still territorial defense of our populations and our countries. But we also realize that in today’s world, the territorial defense of our borders often starts beyond our borders," he said. "As a politician, I’m not surprised that during an election campaign you will see some sharpened statements" from Russia.

Rasmussen had a jam-packed agenda on this two-day visit to Washington, almost all of which was related to preparations for the May NATO summit in Chicago. He began Tuesday with a seminar organized by the NATO Allied Command-Transformation, where officials worked on a "defense package" to be adopted at the summit, which will implement the Rasmussen-supported concept of "smart defense"  — i.e., doing more with less.

"The basic question is, in an environment of declining defense budgets, how can we assure that we have the necessary military capabilities in the future. To that end, we need a smarter way of spending defense money. And a smarter way of doing that is by going to the model of a multinational corporation instead of purely national solutions," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen said the United States would increase its operational exercises with NATO countries, especially through the new NATO Response Force, to which the United States will contribute a rotational troop presence next year for the first time.

Rasmussen also had meetings with senior Obama administration officials, including a Tuesday evening dinner at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. He met with two senior senators, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

One announcement that won’t be made at the NATO summit is the alliance’s intention to mark 2013 as the year when full, lead combat responsibility will be handed over from NATO to the Afghan security forces. That announcement was originally scheduled for the summit, but Panetta surprised his European and NATO colleagues by inelegantly announcing it on the plane to Brussels earlier this month.

That announcement was "not big news," according to Rasmussen, who pointed out that U.S. and NATO officials were quick to clarify that the 2013 milestone did not change the goal of transferring full control of all territory to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.

"The fact is that we stick to the timetable that we outlined in Lisbon in 2010, so in that there’s nothing new," he said. "If we are to complete the transition by the end of 2014, then something may happen in 2013, but that’s not an accelerated timetable. You might say that we tried to detail more in the last 18 months of this transition period."

One administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta blurted out the 2013 milestone inarticulately and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally read his internal official talking points to reporters on the plane, instead of the talking points for the press. Rasmussen couldn’t confirm that’s what happened.

"I don’t know about that," Rasmussen said. "You had many things up in the air at that time. But I think we clarified everything at the defense ministers’ meeting (in Brussels)."

Rasmussen was accompanied in Washington by his new Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow, the recently departed assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who moved to Brussels and took up his new post two weeks ago without even taking a vacation in between jobs.

"It’s quite historic that an American has the position as deputy secretary general," Rasmussen said. "Here you see America actually demonstrate a very clear political commitment to our alliance, which I strongly appreciate."