Seven months of often bitter fighting and up to 30,000 casualties notwithstanding, Libya’s civil war to end the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi was relatively easy for its regional and international stakeholder — at least it was when compared with the challenge of responding the increasingly bloody standoff in Syria. As the Arab League awaits a response from President Bashar al-Assad to its latest proposals to resolve a conflict that has already claimed more than 3,000 lives through dialogue and reform, Assad is talking tough. He told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, in an interview published at the weekend, that he had no intention to engage his political opponents, and warned that “the region would burn” in the event of any foreign military intervention. While admitting that some “mistakes” had been made in his regime’s handling of protests, he insisted that his military was confining itself to fighting “terrorists”.
Linking your opponents with al-Qaeda, of course, is a trick straight out of Gaddafi’s playbook, but some of Assad’s opponents seem ready to meet his tough talk with a hard line of their own, and actions that, while taken in desperation, nonetheless threaten to reinforce Assad’s narrative in the minds of many Syrians: At least 30 Syrian troops were reportedly killed over the weekend in an ambushes by soldiers who’d joined the opposition Free Syrian Army, an organization of military mutineers now waging an insurgent war on the regime. Although the opposition Syrian National Council has declined to call for international intervention, street protestors in Syria last Friday called on Western powers to impose a no-fly zone. But NATO officials have made clear that the alliance is unlikely any time soon to provide the ingredient that in Libya tipped the balance decisively against Gaddafi — the thousands of close air support missions flown by NATO and Qatari aircraft, and the involvement of hundreds of Qatari special forces soldiers on the ground.
NATO officials have reportedly all but ruled out any repeat of the Libya exercise, which had been authorized by the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) as a no-fly zone imposed with the limited goal of protecting civilians — but which was turned by the NATO countries implementing it into a military campaign for regime-change.
Western officials note that the legal basis for the Libya operation was UNSC authorization, while its political legitimacy was provided by Arab League support — both conditions which clearly differentiated the Libya mission from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But right now, the chances of achieving U.N. authorization for action in Syria are remote, while the Arab League appears leery of confrontation and is still trying to persuade Assad back down. At the Security Council, Russia and China have vetoed even modest condemnation and a threat of sanctions against Syria, determined not to allow a repeat of Libya — on which they claim NATO’s actions far exceeded what had been authorized — and to prevent any regime-change operation that, unlike Libya, could substantially alter the regional balance of power.
Even while Gaddafi had been a Western ally against al-Qaeda, and an energy supplier to southern Europe, his regime was hardly indispensable for Western powers, and it was widely despised and isolated among Arab regimes — its survival or collapse had minimal impact on the regional balance of power. Syria, by contrast, is a tripwire on some of the region’s most dangerous fault lines: It borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and has historically been involved in conflict in all of them, as well as being Iran’s key Arab ally.
Moreover, Syria’s internal conflict is not simply an Eastern European style people vs. the regime showdown. Assad is able, still, to draw tens of thousands of people on to demonstrate their support for him on the streets — voluntarily, by accounts of a number of journalists who’ve witnessed these events. He rallies this support by stoking longstanding sectarian fears among the Alawite and Christian minorities of the intentions of the Sunni majority — and particularly the Islamist elements of the rebellion. And some of the experiences of Syrians on the ground in recent months has reinforced these fears: The unpalatable reality for the Syrian opposition is that a substantial section of Syrian society is more afraid of the rebellion, which many perceive as a sectarian Sunni Islamist-led revolt, than they are of the regime. And that’s a dynamic that works in Assad’s favor, potentially even more so the more violent the challenge to the regime becomes.
When cast in sectarian terms, Syria’s power struggle becomes a potentially dangerous flashpoint in regional proxy warfare between the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also threatens to inflame Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Lebanon and Iraq, and Turkish-Kurdish tensions.
The civil war dimension and the regional consequences will reinforce the caution of both NATO powers and the Arab League over intervention. The League has demanded that Assad end his crackdown, engage in dialogue with the opposition and undertake political reforms. But Assad is testing its patience: Monday sees the expiration of a 15-day deadline set by the League for Assad to implement a cease-fire. The League has now presented Assad with a concrete political plan — believed to include an end to repression and hastening of elections — and will decide Wednesday on its next step, depending on Assad’s response. China has also pressed Assad to undertake reforms and halt violence. (Previously, Assad has tended to pay lip service to such demands to defuse pressure, but hasn’t changed course.)
Assad has gambled on a hard line that rallies support on a sectarian basis, even if it negates prospects for dialogue with the opposition. He continues to unleash violence on protesting crowds — who, in turn, have begun to arm themselves, many seeing little alternative as a result of the behavior of the regime.
But Syrians are unlikely to get the sort of help Libyans got from Western powers, and hopes that the military force to take down the regime will come from defections seem a little premature: Dramatic as they are, the defections from the military haven’t yet challenged the regime’s ability to enforce its writ. Still, one factor that differentiates Syria from Libya in the opposition’s favor, is the direct support of a powerful and engaged neighbor, Turkey, for an armed insurgency. Ankara, whose alliance with Assad has broken down over its refusal to tolerate his repression, makes no secret of the fact that it is hosting the Free Syrian Army; last week it introduced the group’s leader, Colonel Riad al-Assad, to the international media. Turkish forces have reportedly also begun to carve out an enclave in northern Syria free of the control of the regime’s forces, from which the insurgents could potentially operate.
Turkey may simply have intended the public show of support for the Free Syrian Army as a shot across Syria’s bow, to demonstrate the consequences for Assad of refusing to heed calls for a political solution. But the widespread belief in Turkey that the recent uptick in attacks on its soldiers by the Kurdish separatist PKK has been stoked by renewed Syrian support for the group, could dramatically escalate the hostility. If Ankara believes Syria is backing the PKK, even at a distance or through its own allies, Turkey may be more inclined to make a more muscular military intervention into Syria’s own civil war in order to punish Assad.
Right now, there’s more reason to expect further violence in Syria than to expect a negotiated solution. But unlike Libya, where foreign intervention dramatically shortened the lifespan of the regime, Syria may instead face the prospect of protracted bloody stalemate, with neither side able to prevail no matter how violent their tactics.