Syria situation far different than Libya

September 7, 2011


Now that NATO has helped to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, some pundits are calling for similar action against Syria.

So far the chorus is muted, composed mainly of op-eds by neoconservatives who promoted the Iraq war. Back then they were certain that regime change in Baghdad would undercut Iran and make the region Israel-friendly (the opposite happened). They now argue that regime change in Damascus, a close friend to Iran, would undercut Tehran and help Israel.

They want NATO to take on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next.

On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss them. Neither the American public nor the White House is keen on more U.S. military interventions. Polls show only 12 percent of the public thinks the United States should get more involved in the Syrian crisis. And NATO members have ruled out for now any military move against the Syrian regime.

Yet, given today’s deranged political climate, the calls for intervention in Syria may grow louder. Republicans are eager to snipe at President Obama’s supposed foreign-policy weakness and Republican front-runner Rick Perry calls for the United States to “renew our commitment of taking the fight to the enemy.” Which enemy does he have in mind? Syria? Iran?

Moreover, those who believe in humanitarian intervention to prevent the slaughter of civilians may join the call for action on Syria. After all, the justification for NATO’s no-fly zone over Libya was to prevent mass slaughter in Benghazi; Syrian leader Assad continues to slaughter civilians who are peacefully calling for reforms in their country. Despite Assad’s ban on news coverage, shocking videos are leaking out of the carnage.

So, rather than dismiss comparisons between the Libyan and Syrian rebellions, we should focus on their differences lest we get sucked into another military intervention — one that we will regret.

Libya was a special case, dissimilar to other Arab revolutions. Indeed — heed this point closely — every Arab revolt has been unique, and needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

In the Libyan case, several unique factors made NATO intervention possible.

The bizarre Gadhafi was personally despised by almost every Arab leader, Sunni or Shiite, for crimes and assassinations he’d committed or attempted. This was the key reason the Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya. The Arab League endorsement persuaded the Russians and Chinese not to veto a U.N. Security Council vote for the no-fly zone.

Other key factors: Libya’s location, far from the Arab heartland, with a small Sunni Arab population, and lots of oil to buy off its people; this meant Libyan regime change was not seen as a threat by most Arab leaders. None of these special circumstances applies in the Syrian case.

Syria sits in the center of the Arab heartland. “Every country in the region has vital security interests in Syria,” says Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at Tufts University.

Assad has a much stronger military machine than did Gadhafi, and is still supported by a sizable segment of the Syrian population that fears chaos. If he falls, a brutal sectarian civil war seems likely.

Syria straddles the Mideast’s Shia-Sunni fault line. The Assad regime is led by Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, while the bulk of the population is Sunni. Assad’s exit would touch off a round of Shiite-Sunni bloodletting that could spread to neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Iraq.

Given the uncertainties about what would follow Assad, Arab leaders are not certain they want him to fall. In such circumstances, no Arab endorsement would be forthcoming for Western military intervention, nor is any Security Council resolution likely.

Moreover, as Nasr notes, no one should assume that the fall of the Assad regime will necessarily help Israel — or seriously harm Tehran.

The Syrian opposition is disorganized and weak, with liberals mostly in exile; the likely winners after a regime change would be Sunni Islamists, perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood.

A new regime led by Sunni Islamists might loosen Assad’s tight ties with Shiite Tehran, but that hardly means it would cut them. It might stop openly shipping weapons to Israel’s enemies, such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah, but that doesn’t mean it would be friendly to Jerusalem.

“A change of regime might mean the Syrian-Israeli border becomes hot again,” says Nasr, with new Syrian rulers pressing harder to regain the Golan Heights. Such a regime, he believes, would find much common cause with Hezbollah — and the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza.

This doesn’t mean the West shouldn’t look for nonmilitary ways to help the Syrian opposition, including tighter sanctions on Assad’s government. It does mean that Washington should have no illusions that Syrian regime change will realign the region in the West’s favor.

“We have to put pressure on Assad but not charge ahead,” says Nasr. “One thing we should have learned from Iraq is that the choices are not between black and white but between shades of gray.”

And each Arab revolution is a different shade of gray.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her email address is trubin@phillynews.com.


Getaroom 6 years, 8 months ago

Another great and insightful article by Trudy Rubin! Thank you Trudy!!

So, it sounds like the Neocon World Domination bent, Bible thumping Tea Party favorite from the the firey hell of Texas is calling for yet more war. How is that making government smaller and more efficient? I know, because war is profitable for some mighty big corporations who are calling the shots in DC. The profiteers love to make war on foreign lands and then demand we be "patriotic" and support it. Let me see now, it is OK to make more war, costing billions+ more in tax dollars, but we are cutting education beyond the bone and placing more money in the hands of corporations who are paying their executives outrageous sums of money and workers less than ever and crushing collective bargaining rights? How Patriotic! And not to be out of lockstep with Big Business, Perry has been busy selling off Texas highways to foreign companies who in turn charge tolls, now he is also an expert on foreign policy and stays home to watch the fires burn instead of debate. What a truly great leader indeed - NOT! One must wonder, with all these fires burning in Texas, if it would be OK with him to refuse federal disaster aid to help fight the fires and to rebuild, while he is praying for rain and succeeding from the Union? WWBD? What would Brownbackward do? Help Rick Perry pray of course and keep on thumping his way to the Whitehouse!

Crazy_Larry 6 years, 8 months ago

General Wesley Clark exposes USA's foreign policy coup. The Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex has taken over. The Department of Defense is now the Department of Offense: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oJUnG...

Paul R Getto 6 years, 8 months ago

We are already fight two BS wars. That's enough. The Lybian strategy worked pretty well, but Syria is not worth it.

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