What’s the difference between Syria and Libya?
Of course there are pretty obvious differences. The countries have very different histories, demographics, economies and political systems. Even pre-revolution, Libya was a very different kind of police state to Syria. Whereas Syria is run ostensibly as a 1-party state (if with a dynastic succession), Gaddafi’s Libya was very much a 1-person show, a military dictatorship wrapped in leftist antri-imperialist rhetoric. Ironically, despite this military basis for Gaddafi’s rule, he had a relatively weak army, relying on a network of patronage and fear to rule. The formal military was kept weak so another coup could not follow his. Syria’s military, on the other hand, is designed to project power in the region.
Despite all these differences, there are some similarities in the popular uprising against the state. The uprising has largely been a grass-roots rebellion starting from younger members of society, initially protesting peacefully, but turning to violence in the face of an extremely violent crackdown on protest. In both cases, we have seen tanks and artillery turned on civilian populations.
Once the protest and crackdown proceeded, another big difference opened up: the international response. Whereas the Libyan uprising requested and received an international military response, that has not happened in Syria. Governments and analysts on the left side of politics in countries like South Africa argued that Libya’s crisis would better have been resolved by peaceful intervention, delegations and negotiators, and the like. I have heard tearful commentary on South African radio about what a pity so much of Libya’s infrastructure was destroyed. Well, it’s happening in Syria too, and no one this time can blame NATO bombers.
Of course Syria is not in Africa, but there are enough similarities in the unfolding of events to use this example to question whether the preferred African approach can work. What is happening in Syria is much closer to that option than what happened in Libya, where there was an external military intervention.
I remain very skeptical of the motivation behind the intervention in Libya but we now have a clearly contrasting situation where no outside military intervention is occurring. At time of writing, Al Jazeera reports claims of civilian deaths of 7,000, and the use of extreme force against centres of the uprising continues. The main international intervention so far has been an Arab League observer mission that had to withdraw after making no impact.
The South Africa model of negotiating with dictators for a “political solution” failed in Zimbabwe, and didn’t produce great results in Kenya. Africa as a whole is better off without electoral fraud, 1-party states and military dictators. Syria doesn’t need a South Africa-style intervention. But does it need a NATO-style intervention? At some point if the Assad regime continues to massacre its own people, something has to happen, otherwise why do we have organisations like the UN? And that is where the response really should come from. But with countries like Russia and China loath to set a precedent of intervening in countries with brutal tendencies towards their own people, that is unlikely. The Arab League is really the organisation that should mobilise an intervention. But will that happen? I am not holding my breath.
So on the balance, the NATO intervention in Libya, no matter how self-serving, does not appear to have been such a disaster, compared with a do-nothing (or to be less unkind, talk-shop) approach. Libya post-Gaddafi is no worse a mess than any post-dictator society with no recent history of democracy. But it’s unlikely to happen again, because the NATO intervention happened under a UN mandate, and there’s no sign that this can happen for Syria, which has more friends than Gaddafi’s Libya. The most unlikely scenario for Syria is that conflict will grind on until enough of the army switches sides to turn the tables on the regime. It is very unlikely that the regime will win, because there’s a limit to what a conscript army can do against its own people, and mandatory conscription means a large fraction of the civilian population have military training.
Meanwhile the people of Syria are in for a grim time with rising casualties and the kind of destruction that will make the NATO intervention in Libya look like a minor skirmish.
Finally, for those who thought the NATO intervention exceeded that UN mandate, why weren’t you paying attention when US Secretary of State Robert Gates argued that a no-fly zone required taking out ground defences? Anyone who thought it would be a limited operation is exceptionally naïve.