Is the West inching toward military intervention in Syria?

More countries are talking about implementing at least a partial no-fly zone in Syria and taking other steps to address the needs of the swelling numbers of refugees.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters take cover as they exchange fire with forces of the regime in the Seif El Dawla neighborhood of Syria's city of Aleppo, Friday, Aug. 24.

Is the West inching toward military intervention in Syria?

The likelihood of action that is closer to the role the West took last year in Libya seems to be growing, as more countries talk about implementing a no-fly zone and steps to address the needs of the swelling numbers of refugees in the Syrian conflict.

In France, where the right is hounding President François Hollande for “abandoning” Syrians battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the government is now raising the possibility of establishing at least a partial no-fly zone. Creation of such a zone, first suggested by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a recent visit to Turkey, would help protect civilians from government bombardment and carve out a “safe haven” from which anti-Assad forces could operate.

France and Germany are calling for more coordinated action to address the needs of what are now estimated to be more than 200,000 refugees in the conflict. And British Prime Minister David Cameron is echoing President Obama, who earlier this week warned Mr. Assad that any use or even movement of the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons would be met by US military intervention.

Up to now Western powers, including the United States, have insisted that Syria is different from Libya, that the risks of a devastating regional war set off by outside intervention are much greater, and that the need is to end Syria’s violence, not add to it. But with violence reaching horrendous new proportions, and with the fighting sending thousands of additional refuges every week into Turkey, Jordan, and an increasingly tense Lebanon, pressure to do something different is mounting.

On Thursday French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a televised interview that it might be time to establish a no-fly zone over the area between the besieged northern city of Aleppo and the Turkish border.

“The idea of a no-fly zone over a particular part of Syria, as suggested by Hillary Clinton, should be examined,” he said.

The uptick in discussion of possible Western intervention in Syria comes as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met for the first time Friday with the new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. The foreign Algerian foreign minister took the post after former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan resigned in protest of what he said was the international community’s “disunity” on Syria.

Mr. Brahimi, whose new job officially starts Sept. 1, has said his mission of bringing peace to Syria can succeed only if the international community manages to speak “with a unified voice.”

Mr. Annan had offered a six-point peace plan for Syria that was rubber-stamped by the UN Security Council but never backed in its details. Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria, most recently last month, prompting Western powers to say they would have to turn to other institutions and countries to address the Syrian conflict.

Still, the complications of establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone in Syria are prompting caution on the part of some US officials. This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that while such a step is under study, it is “not on the front burner.”

Military experts say setting up even a partial no-fly zone would require sustained and risky intervention, and it would inevitably result in casualties that the Assad regime and its supporters would trumpet to Muslim countries as more Western attacks on Muslims.

Others point to how NATO’s aerial campaign in Libya extended well beyond what NATO leaders originally predicted would be necessary. Another concern is whether Western intervention would prompt Assad to unleash his chemical weapons, as he has threatened.

But with reports suggesting hundreds of civilians are dying every day in the violence, and with Syrian refugees pouring over borders and adding to the region’s already worrisome instability, pressure to take action is likely to continue climbing.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) this week revised upward to 200,000 the number of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries and require assistance. Turkey has already registered more than 75,000 Syrian refugees, while others who have fled to Lebanon are getting caught up in spillover violence there.

As a result, more refuges seem to be crossing into Jordan – sometimes a thousand or more in a night, the UNHCR reports.

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