Mired in Libya and Fearful of Consequences, West Holds Back From Syria Intervention

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Protesters carry a man believed to be a killed in Homs, in this undated still image taken from amateur video footage made available on August 2, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

“Liberal Interventionists” in Washington had hoped, last March, that the decision by the U.S., Britain and France to launch U.N.authorized military action in Libya represented a new Western willingness to protect civilians under threat by their own regimes. The paralysis of the same governments and the wider international community in the face of the more sustained brutality now unfolding in Syria suggests that the humanitarian interventionists dreamed in vain.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has chosen the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan to unleash a brutal armored assault on a city bombed to rubble by his father, President Hafez al-Assad, to suppress an earlier rebellion in 1982. More than 140 residents of the city are reported to have been killed since Saturday, bringing the total death toll for the four-month uprising close to 2,000. Five times as many have been detained. And yet, despite its escalating brutality, the crackdown clearly isn’t working.

But the U.N. Security Council, which authorized military intervention to protect Libya’s risen citizenry, finally managed Wednesday to agree on a rebuke of the “the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities,” but with no consequences for the regime. 

Arab regimes long at odds with Damascus and its Iranian allies, and who blessed the intervention in Libya, have remained largely moot on the Syria crisis. Military intervention by any outside power remains highly unlikely.

The Libya experience, of course, has dimmed prospects for intervention on Syria’s behalf. Having successfully prevented an assault by Gaddafi forces on the rebel capital of Benghazi, the Western powers running the NATO campaign began to expand its objectives far beyond those set by the Security Council, morphing a mission authorized to protect Libya’s civilians into a military campaign for regime-change. NATO has been flying close air support to rebel “infantry” who were expected to sweep into Tripoli and drive out the tyrant, and when that failed, it appears to have on more than one occasion launched strikes that might have killed him. Almost five months later, however, Gaddafi remains in place, and Libya is a quagmire, with the NATO mission running out of steam while its goals remain elusive.

If Libya has been a cautionary tale of the danger of mission-creep for NATO militaries, for the likes of China and Russia — whose assent is required for any U.N.-authorized action — it has been yet another example of Western perfidy, exploiting a consensus on protecting civilians to launch yet a regime-change war. Hardly surprising, then, that Moscow and Beijing have been reluctant even to allow the U.N. to condemn Syria’s behavior lest such censure be taken as the legal fig-leaf for yet another military adventure. Russia has also been a longtime ally and patron of the regime in Damascus, although last weekend’s brutality in Hama prompted harsh condemnation from Moscow.

In Washington, as analyst and Foreign Policy magazine editor Blake Hounshell notes, the usual suspects are bashing the Obama Administration to do more to align the U.S. with the Syrian rebellion, accusing him of a fecklessness that they say has emboldened Assad’s crackdown — a charge that Hounshell says both ignores the realities of the power struggle in Syria, and (perhaps routinely) overestimates the leverage the U.S. can bring to bear on the situation.

But regardless of the state of debate among the U.S. punditry and on the Security Council, there’s no appetite in Western capitals for military action in Syria. That’s not only because how the Libya mission has played out or because of the limited resources Western powers have to devote to expeditionary warfare, today, but also because of  the specifics of Syria’s situation.

For one thing, it’s not entirely clear who, in Syria, falls within the rebel camp and who opposes it. Key sectors of the society — whether for reasons of sect or political and economic interest — continue to support the regime. “With no way to know whether a majority supports regime change,” warns Hounshell, “it would hardly be wise to declare al-Assad illegitimate and denounce dialogue with the government as folly without a critical mass of Syrians making it clear they felt the same.”

The opposition is divided and its composition unclear. Western powers alarmed by last week’s debacle in Libya, where the rebels’ military chief appears to have been assassinated by an Islamist militia on his own side, will be wary of suggestions that some of the violence in the Syria rebellion (some 300 members of the security forces are reported to have been killed in its course) is coming from jihadist Syrians who fought in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

Even if those specific fears proved to be unfounded, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest a violent component is emerging within the rebellion, and it’s a safe bet that the regime’s brutality will likely intensify armed resistance.

The wider geopolitical  implications of a rebellion and repression dynamic that appears to break worryingly on sectarian lines also gives pause in foreign capitals. While many in the West would dearly love to break the Damascus-Tehran axis, supporting a largely Sunni rebellion against a regime supported by the Christian and Alawite (an offshoot of Shi’ism, from which the regime’s leadership is drawn) minorities could have dangerous implications for the already unstable equilibria in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

Still, Western hopes that Assad could still lead a reform process to resolve the conflict now appear increasingly forlorn. The regime’s actions appear to have irreparably alienated its key neighbor and trading partner, Turkey, which is being pushed further onto the path of supporting the opposition by the sheer brutality unleashed by Assad (and the resultant flow of refugees across its border). That, and the escalating economic isolation of the regime by European powers may prevent Assad from pulling Syria out of the slide towards economic collapse, which would doom a regime held together in no small part by patronage.

So, it may well be that the regime is heading into a death dive. But even then, military action remains unlikely — and the priority of the Western powers, as well as Turkey and Syria’s Arab neighbors, will be to forge a common regional understanding to contain the damage of what may prove to be a nasty endgame.