The Multilateralist

NATO’s mixed Syria signals

NATO’s mixed Syria signals

Senior NATO officials have been sending somewhat confused signals about where the alliance stands on Syria. At yesterday’s U.S. Senate hearing, NATO commander James Stavridis acknowledged that states in the alliance are considering military options in Syria:

Stavridis, who is retiring soon, said a number of NATO nations are looking at a variety of military operations to end the deadlock and assist the opposition forces, including using aircraft to impose a no-fly zone, providing military assistance to the rebels and imposing arms embargoes…

“We are prepared if called upon to be engaged as we were in Libya,” he said.

[W]ithin individual member countries, the admiral said, “there’s a great deal of discussion” about lethal support to Syria, no-fly zones, arms embargoes and more. “It is moving individually within the nations, but it has not yet come into NATO as an overall NATO-type approach,” he said.

In response to a question from Senator John McCain, the alliance’s top military officer offered support to those who have advocated arming Syria’s rebels: Stavridis told McCain that military aid to rebel forces could help break the current deadlock. That has been an important point of contention in recent weeks. Certain NATO members, including Germany, have argued that weapons for the rebels would only intensify the violence and encourage the regime’s supporters — and Russia, in particular — to increase their military support.  

Stavridis did include important caveats about any alliance role in Syria. Most significantly, he said that U.N. Security Council approval would be a prerequisite for involvement. In fact, Stavridis appeared to pose a daunting triple multilateral test: Council approval, regional agreement, and NATO unanimity. At the moment, of course, it’s highly unlikely the Council would endorse any Western intervention.

Caveats notwithstanding, Stavridis’ comments are still in tension with recent remarks by NATO’s political chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Only a few weeks ago, Rasmussen told EUObserver that intervention would likely make things worse:

"It is my firm belief that any foreign military intervention would have unpredictable repercussions because Syrian society is very complicated, politically, ethnically, religiously and the regional context is very, very complex," Rasmussen noted.

"Foreign military intervention might not lead to a solution to the conflict, [it] might even make things worse," he added.

And while Stavridis argued that arming rebel forces could break the bloody stalemate, Rasmussen this week pointedly declined to enter into the debate on arming opposition forces. It’s not surprising that senior alliance officials are having a difficult time coordinating their remarks. They face the devilish task of representing the diverse views of the alliance’s 28 members, some of which are evolving almost daily. But there does appear to be a gap between the views of the alliance’s top military officer and its political chief.