But for all the justified focus on Syria, the single event that would most help bring down the Assads would be the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. It still isn’t clear today if the lesson of the Arab Spring is that dictators are doomed or that dictators willing to shoot peaceful protesters can win. Once Gadhafi goes, the oxygen Libya is sucking from the Arab struggle for democracy will circulate again. The NATO effort—however poorly implemented—will have finally been a success, and threats of possible military action to protect civilians, especially refugees, will have some credibility. ~Elliott Abrams
Threats of military action against Syria aren’t going to have any credibility, because Assad and everyone else will understand them to be empty threats. France has ruled out military intervention in Syria, it is hard to imagine that Turkey will have any interest in hastening Syria’s collapse (which is what military action would accomplish), and there is no appetite in the U.S. for a fourth war in a predominantly Muslim country. Britain’s military is badly overstretched as it is, Libya has badly dented the government’s credibility at home, and there will be little enthusiasm for another campaign so soon. There will certainly be no appeal from the Arab League. Members of the Security Council may be willing to discuss Syria in the future, but authorizing military action will be out of the question for those members that see how the Libyan intervention has evolved in ways they don’t like. That will remain the case whether or not Gaddafi falls from power.
I won’t go so far as to say that Gaddafi’s fall would have no influence on events in Syria, but we have heard many times that the Libyan war will send a message to other authoritarian governments, and they never seem to receive the message that Western governments are trying to send them. Attacking Libya was supposed to deter Assad and others like him from brutally repressing anti-regime protesters. That obviously didn’t happen. Now toppling Gaddafi will supposedly send the message that Assad’s days are numbered, but it’s not clear why that would be the case. Regime change in Libya has become possible only because of outside forces. The reality that the rebels in Libya desperately needed Western intervention to avoid defeat is a kind of encouragement for Assad. The “lesson” Assad has probably taken from this is that Gaddafi was exposed to intervention because he had sufficiently alienated all of the states that would have normally opposed foreign intervention. As long as Syria does not lose all of its powerful patrons, it will not be exposed in the same way.
The Syrian opposition won’t be able to count on the same assistance, and so the “lesson” of Libya will be that a weak opposition won’t succeed unless it has foreign patrons. For their part, Syrian opposition leaders flatly reject foreign military intervention in their country. If the Syrian opposition doesn’t want military intervention, it probably doesn’t want Western governments to issue threats of military action. Once we understand this, we can see that Gaddafi’s fall is not the “single event that would most help bring down the Assads.” It will have no significant effect on the outcome in Syria.