No-fly or no-go in Syria?

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

image copyrightAFP
image captionIf President Barack Obama can be called a liberal interventionist at all, he is a cautious one

The sabre-rattling is growing louder, and the West is making fierce faces at Bashar al-Assad.

Perhaps the US and the UK are really growing nearer to taking some action, inch by slow inch. But somehow I doubt it.

The Daily Beast reports that the White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria.

In response to this report, a senior administration official told the BBC: "I'm not going to discuss our internal deliberations, but we have said for many months that the administration is prepared for a variety of contingencies in Syria and all options are on the table."

No matter that Mr Obama thought a no-fly zone was pretty much an empty gesture in Libya and eventually ordered more comprehensive action.

No matter that Nato has no such plan. No matter that the Pentagon believes such action would be complicated and risky.

It is not too hard to guess what is really going on. Although France and Britain pressed hard for the EU weapons embargo to be lifted, it does not seem they are preparing to actually supply any arms anytime soon.

This is about putting maximum pressure on the Syrian government to take part in the peace conference, although admittedly diplomats don't have much hope that will produce results either.

There are many practical problems about the US and its allies taking action in Syria, and many potentially messy outcomes if they do. But it is more than this.

We should know by now that if President Obama is a liberal interventionist at all, he is a very cautious, reluctant one. He knows that, without the US, nothing will be done, but he seems to feel that it can often be the least worst option to do nothing.

It is worth reflecting that this is the majority position of leaders all over the world. It also appears to be the view of many Americans, tired of war, and few in the region are clamouring for open intervention.

But commentators and politicians in France, the UK and the US, do demand "something must be done". The sabres may yet be unsheathed.