By Elise Labott
As NATO leaders discuss the winding down of its 10-year war in Afghanistan and pat themselves on the back for helping in the bloody ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, there is one increasingly deadly conflict that is taboo for the alliance to even think about wading into: Syria.
Practically every NATO leader has publicly condemned the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and called for him to step down and make way for a democratic transition in Syria. Yet U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said Sunday that not one leader even raised the issue of Syria during the opening day of the summit.
While saying NATO is "very much concerned about the situation of Syria," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made clear the alliance has "no intention whatsoever to intervene."
NATO's radio silence has prompted criticism among human rights groups and on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers for question why the alliance supported military intervention in Libya but has ruled out similar action in Syria. One congressional source called the refusal to even talk about the issue "pretty shocking."
Sen. John McCain, an outspoken proponent of U.S.-led intervention on Syria, has called it "shameful" that NATO has stood by while the Syrian people are hammered by the regime's heavily armed forces. McCain lobbied unsuccessfully to get the Syria issue on the formal agenda at the Chicago summit.
"Is it now the policy of NATO that we will stand by as rulers kill their people by the thousands and our alliance won't even discuss what we might do to help stop them?" McCain asked in a recent speech. "Shame on us and shame on the alliance, if we neglect our responsibilities to support brave peoples who are struggling and dying in an unfair fight for the same values that are at the heart of our alliance."
U.S. officials and other NATO diplomats argue that Syria's sectarian make-up and its divided opposition make military intervention a gamble that could lead to further bloodshed and instability, as it did after the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq in 2003.
"There is a clear difference between Libya and Syria. We took responsibility for the operation in Libya to protect the civilian population because we had a clear mandate from the United Nations, and we got clear support from a number of countries in the region," Rasmussen said Sunday in an interview with CNN's "State of the Union." "None of these conditions are fulfilled when it comes to Syria."
They also point to war-weary populations and slashed defense budgets throughout the alliance, which make another NATO intervention unfeasible.
"Nobody is keen to ask questions that they don't want answered," one senior official said of the lack of discussion on the Syria issue in Chicago. "There is no point of a vigorous plea if you aren't ready to back it up."
NATO leaders have individually backed implementation of the April 11 cease-fire brokered by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, but in the same breath have acknowledged the deal has failed to stem the regime's assault. Syrian human rights groups estimate nearly 12,000 people have died since the uprising began, more than 900 since the truce took effect
David Kramer, president of the Freedom House, a pro-democracy group, says the mixed messages on the Annan plan, coupled with an unwillingness to consider more robust action, signal to al-Assad a lack of international resolve that encourages him to continue the crackdown.
"It's incomprehensible to me why NATO officials publicly say they are doing zero planning," Kramer said. "Why telegraph to Assad what our limits are?"
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said U.S. and NATO military leaders in April had explored possible military outcomes in Syria should Western powers decide to remove al-Assad by force.
In Jordan, U.S. Army Green Berets are training Jordanian special forces in a number of "worst-case scenarios," including Syria's chemical and biological weapons falling out of the control of government forces, U.S. sources tell CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.
Turkey's recent threat to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter further raised hopes among opposition supporters that the alliance could play a role in the conflict. Article 5 claims that an attack against one NATO member can be considered an attack on the entire alliance.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara was considering the move after al-Assad forces fired into Turkish territory in pursuit of rebels who had fled across the border. Some NATO diplomats expected Turkey to at least ask for formal NATO consultations on this issue at the Chicago summit, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the alliance would be ready to consider.
But in Chicago, Turkish officials remained silent, as did the alliance's 27 other members, including the United States.
In the summit's final declaration, NATO members pledged to strengthen partnerships with non-NATO members to deal with global threats, as it did in Afghanistan and more recently in Libya.
Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says NATO should be discussing how to form such a coalition for acting in Syria with countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates before the situation becomes more dangerous and al-Assad considers even more brutal action, such as using Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.
"It is the biggest conflict waging on NATO's border," Volker said. "How many dead Syrians are enough? If he were out there with chemical weapons, would we stand by and do nothing, even if the Security Council was blocked by the Russians? I don't think so. So is there a threshold of human catastrophe? And if you are convinced Assad is going to cross that threshold, isn't it better to do something before he does?"
It's a very profound set of questions, which NATO is not yet ready to answer.