Is Syria The New Libya?

As the death count sky rockets in Syria, the US must develop a rational strategy

After the relatively peaceful revolution in Tunisia, many were shocked by the escalated violence utilized by the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Yet after the vicious response to protests by Qaddafi in Libya, hindsight has perhaps redefined the definition of a peaceful revolution. Rather than adopting the mass protest styles that resulted in regime collapse in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, the activists in Libya very quickly took up armed rebellion, leading to western leaders making grand pronouncements about the lost legitimacy of Qaddafi and, eventually, disastrous intervention. With the Libya still embroiled in a seemingly interminable stalemate, the situation in Syria has deteriorated along the same lines. Unfortunately, instead of learning from the Mubarak and Ben Ali stories, it seems as though Assad has decidedly turned down the same route as Libya. With the west still busy bombing Qaddafi in Tripoli, the United States will need to find another way to deal with a very similar situation developing in Damascus.

Protests in Libya began in mid-February with modest sized protests centered in Benghazi and smaller neighboring towns. It did not take long for the regime to begin its brutal crackdown on protesters, using hired thugs to shoot and kill protesters. The first week of protests ended with around 100 dead and a full scale military crackdown on protesters in many of the major Libyan cities. The first evidence of a national split came 6 days after the first protests when ‘The Voice of Free Libya’ radio station first started broadcasting from Benghazi. Soon after, some government officials began defecting after reports of massacres and the use of fighter jets against protesters came to light. By 26 February, US President Obama had already urged Qaddafi to step down. The situation became a veritable civil war on 27 February with the establishment of the National Transitional Council in Benghazi. Using arms taken from overthrown military compounds and from defecting soldiers, the began moving back and forth along the coast until the near defeat of the rebels and the last minute intervention by the west.

There are many ways in which the situation in Libya differs from that in Syria, but Assad’s response to the growing uprising in Syria more closely resembles the heavy hand of Qaddafi than the laissez-tomber (so to speak) of Mubarak. Unlike in Libya, the Syrian uprising was slow to materialize, leading Assad to confidently assert that Syria would avoid the revolutionary wave. Yet on 6 March, the city of Dera’a saw the arrest of several young boys, sparking major unrest in the southern city. Syrian authorities, like their Libyan counterparts, cut electricity and phone lines to the city while using snipers to pick off unarmed protesters. Despite government efforts to put an end to the uprising the revolution has spread to other major cities across the country. Today the total death count has reached over 1,100 – higher than the total count for Egypt – including the death of 13 year old Hamza al-Khatib who was apparently tortured before being killed by the authorities. Syrian activists are rallying around the death of the young boy while international actors are beginning to take a stronger line against Assad. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Judd has suggested that Assad should face trial at the UN while US Secretary of State Clinton has asserted that Assad’s legitimacy has “nearly run out.” French FM Alain Juppe has called for tougher measures against Syria while Turkey has also called for deep fundamental change.

While the protests have thus far remained peaceful – at least on the side of the protesters – continued repression by the government may lead some to take up arms. The town of Rastan has been put under siege and was recently bombarded as Syrian tanks shelled several neighborhoods leading to 41 deaths. Another 13 have been killed by snipers. The people of Rastan have threatened to blow up a bridge in retaliation. Likewise, the town of Tel Kalakh on the border has used rocket-propelled grenades to attack government tanks.

Despite pounding various cities across the country, the Syrian government has attempted to alleviate pressure by making, at least rhetorically, concessions to the opposition. Immediately before shelling the town of Restan, the government released several hundred political prisoners and called for a national dialogue – offers that were considered insignificant (there are over 10,000 political prisoners still in Syrian prisons) or poorly timed (the opposition has rejected talks until the violence stops). Clearly, Assad has passed the point when Mubarak and Ben Ali chose to step down, leading many to wonder at what point can and will the violence end. Indeed, a looming question is what will happen if Syria moves even closer that it already is to the Libyan model.

Over the last few days, Syrian opposition figures met in Antalya, Turkey to discuss the uprising, raising comparisons to the organizational meetings that eventually created the National Transitional Council in Libya. Over 300 Syrian activists met to discuss the uprising in an unprecedented display of unity among so tribal, ethnic and religious lines. There was a large contingent of Kurds and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as many exiled Syrians from Europe and the United States. According the Syria expert Josh Landis, the conference will pass a statement calling for a separation of church and state, an end to violence and the dismantlement of the Assad regime. Moreover, the group elected an executive council of 31 to lead the opposition effort.

As the opposition becomes more organized, both inside and outside of the country, pressure continues to mount on Assad. Many expect the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, with Syrian activists receiving quiet guarantees that Russia will abstain from the vote.

Suppose for a moment that the government-sponsored violence continues unabated, leading to more calls for the international community to become involved in the deteriorating situation and more determination by the increasingly unified opposition leadership to bring down Assad; or suppose, perhaps, that Syrian protesters begin to take up arms against the army (although this seems unlikely on a mass scale considering the palpable fear still present in the country). At that point somewhere in the future, the only options left would be the government violently crushing the protesters or the fall of the government. Put another way, without a change in the accelerating trends, Assad will find his back – and his powerful and loyal military – against a wall with only one way out.

Internationally, Hillary Clinton has already ruled out international intervention in Syria and Russia has asked NATO countries to promise that military intervention is completely off the table. Fortunately, then, it seems as though the neo-con/liberal interventionist alliance that brought the west into Libya will not be pushing for another international bombing mission. Unfortunately, it seems the west has no other plan lined up.

As Nicolas Noe points out, the current strategy in Washington offers no incentive for Assad to reform or even stop using violence; the combination of tough words and sanctions is all stick and no carrot. Indeed, the stick wielded by Obama has been nearly completely dulled by the inability of the west to even threaten international intervention. Consequently, the only ideas that are being voiced are backing a Libya-style insurrection that will almost certainly end in disaster for the Syrian people:

As a result of this idea vacuum, the Neo-LiberalCon tsunami grows by the day, publicly eschewing armed, Libyan-style intervention (although, given past statements, it is likely the neo-con wing privately hopes for this), and instead posits a policy by powerful external actors that would accelerate Syria’s internal contradictions and pressures to the breaking point.

One essential problem with this formulation is that the result, especially for the people of Syria, will likely be even worse than the kind of civil war that obtains to this day in Libya. As one Syrian activist who crossed into Lebanon casually told a Western reporter earlier this month, he could contemplate the need for sacrificing the lives of 2-3 million Syrians for freedom.

Noe suggests a massive increase in the carrots that Washington can offer Damascus. Specifically, Noe calls for international support for the Syrian economy that would help the ease the economic pain that was a major cause of these protests for a vast majority (mostly rural) of the Syrian population, a public commitment to a strict timeline for real political reform and, perhaps most controversially, a dedication of the United States to returning the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. Importantly, Noe rejects a complete overthrow of the Assad regime as it would likely bring the entire system down (as is a possibility in Libya) and could create unwanted precedents for countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

It is difficult to say whether Noe’s plan has the potential to create real and positive change in Syria or if the plan is even possible, particularly when the opposition leaders have agreed that Assad must fall. However, Noe does offer an alternative option to the current approach which is best characterized by tough talk with little hope of more. One thing that is for certain is that without a reassessment of the American approach to Syria, the government crackdown could potentially begin to increasingly resemble the civil war in Libya.

Photo from the Independent

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4 thoughts on “Is Syria The New Libya?

  1. Excellent post. Btw, I posted the video of the 13-yo kid who was tortured and murdered. I don’t care about the sensitivities of the readership who might be offended by reality – let them watch the Disney channel. Bashar Assad has entered the rarefied universe of the likes of Gaddafi, Mugabe, and Mladik. Good going Chris.

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