February 10th, 2012
12:07 PM ET

How Syria differs from Libya

By Tim Lister, CNN

Amid growing outrage over civilian casualties in Syria, there are ever more urgent calls to aid - or at least protect - the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. There is renewed talk of creating safe havens and humanitarian corridors inside the country. And those demanding tougher measures are again asking why events in Syria should not prompt Libyan-style intervention by NATO and its Arab allies.

In Washington Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said the United States "should consider all options, including arming the opposition. The blood-letting has got to stop."

So far, the international community's response to the violence in Syria has been limited. There has been diplomatic censure, with envoys withdrawn or "recalled for consultations," and Syrian ambassadors expelled from several Arab states. A growing raft of sanctions is draining the Syrian regime's coffers but only gradually sapping its strength. This is not a country that has relied on international trade for its survival.

An Arab League monitoring mission is in abeyance, after a much criticized few weeks on the ground that drew ridicule even from within its own ranks and fury (for its perceived complacency) from protesters. And back in November, France floated the idea of humanitarian corridors that would be protected by armed observers - while ruling out military intervention. So far the idea has not gained traction.

None of this amounts to the sort of pressure that will make the al-Assad regime buckle, especially when it perceives as divided both internal opposition and the international community.

Compare the situation to that in Libya - almost a year ago. As then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was about to unleash his forces on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the world came together in the shape of the U.N. Security Council to authorize international intervention and prevent a bloodbath.

The French and British were prime movers behind U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973; the United States an enthusiastic supporter. Russia abstained, but at the time its ambassador noted that many questions remained "unanswered, including how it would be enforced and by whom, and what the limits of engagement would be." Russian later complained that a humanitarian mandate had become a blank check in support of the rebels.

Perhaps in part because of the bad blood over Libya, the world body has reached no similar consensus over Syria. Rather, the opposite, with some of the harshest diplomatic language traded for years. To the United States, the vetoes were a "travesty." German ambassador Peter Wittig essentially said that Moscow and Beijing had Syrian blood on their hands.

"China and Russia will now have to assume that responsibility in the face of the international public opinion and especially in the Arab world, the Arab citizens and, of course, in face of the Syrian people," Wittig said.

Beyond the rhetoric, the vetoes had a more practical consequence. NATO officials have made it clear that the alliance cannot act, by enforcing a no-fly zone for example, without U.N. support. Writer Derek Flood, recently in Syria with elements of the Free Syrian Army, says NATO officials envision no role for the alliance in Syria this year. But they have not ruled out a "coalition of the willing" outside the NATO orbit.

Both Russia and China are wary of any international action supporting protest against authoritarian rule. And Syria has been first the Soviet Union's - and now Russia's - key ally in the region after Egypt 'defected' in the 1970s. As it has for decades, Russia still supplies the Syrian government with weapons. One Russian analyst, Ruslan Pukhov, told CNN: "Once the Assad regime vanishes, we have zero influence in the region."

According to Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, al-Assad has ably judged the "diplomatic red lines" to keep Moscow onside. There have been no massacres on the scale of what happened in Hama 30 years ago (when thousands were killed after a brief uprising against his father's rule) that might have forced Russia into a corner. The persistent drip of civilian casualties over almost a year has not unleashed a tide of irresistible outrage.

Last weekend's casualties in Homs, which opposition activists said numbered in the hundreds, may have changed that. But what can be done? In Bosnia, the international community declared "safe havens" for Muslims but failed to protect them. The result in July 1995 was Srebrenica, the worst massacre in Europe since 1945, when some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians were killed by Serb forces. Havens are only safe when protected against superior forces.

Others support Sen. John McCain in arguing for arming the fledgling Free Syrian Army. Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, told CNN that is "the most likely [option], that the Arab League countries, Turkey and probably NATO as well arms the Free Syrian Army, gives them the means to fight back.

"But then you've got a long and bloody civil war," Slaughter says - reminiscent of Bosnia.

Analysts say that even setting aside the lack of international will, successful intervention in Syria would pose problems not present in Libya:

Geography: Most regime targets in Libya were close to the Mediterranean coast and within easy reach of NATO air bases in Italy. Even so, NATO warplanes flew some 21,000 missions over nearly six months to enforce the no-fly zone, suppress air defenses and destroy command centers and armor. Military analysts say that, while no match for the best NATO members could summon, Syrian armed forces are better equipped and coordinated than anything Gadhafi could muster.

Neighboring states: Few of Syria's neighbors would likely allow their territory to be used to pre-position supplies or military units. Certainly neither Iraq nor Lebanon, both countries with their own volatile sectarian mixes. The Hezbollah militia, strongly allied with Syria, remains powerful within Lebanon.

The presence of foreign troops on Jordanian soil might have repercussions for a monarchy that already has plenty of problems domestically. Using Israeli territory would send the wrong message altogether.

That leaves Turkey, a NATO member that has run out of patience with al-Assad. Last month, the Turkish foreign minister compared the Syrian president with former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, and on Tuesday Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned al-Assad - pointedly in Arabic - "What goes around, comes around."

Turkey has military bases (Incirlik, Diyarbakir) close to the border that - theoretically - could serve as staging posts for intervention. But even for the Turks, there would be risks - including a flood of refugees and possible retaliation by Damascus supporting the Kurdish terrorist group active in Turkey, the PKK.

Topography: Libya was flat desert; there was little cover for regime forces and most of the fighting was along a narrow coastal strip. "Target acquisition" was relatively simple. Syria's physical geography is more challenging; and much of its northern border with Turkey and Lebanon is mountainous, with few major roads. Getting aid into any safe havens within Syria would be a logistical nightmare.

The opposition: The Libyan rebels, for all their military shortcomings, quickly grabbed a swathe of eastern Libya and major air and seaports in Benghazi and Tobruk that became their resupply hubs. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), at best, controls a few neighborhoods in Homs and elsewhere.

'The FSA has established very small slices of liberated territory," says Derek Flood, who has just left Idlib province close to the Turkish border. He says the FSA is poorly armed; he was told the price of weapons on the black market has soared, "with a used AK-47 fetching as much as $2,000 – $3,000." Flood says the FSA in that area wants a 5 kilometer buffer zone inside Syria to provide protection from regime forces.

Crucially, the regime retains control of Syria's frontiers, and its armed forces appear cohesive, according to analysts in the region. There have been military defections, mainly of low-rank conscripts, but not of entire units with their armor.

Against all this and the political risks of western military action in yet another Muslim country, some argue there is a moral imperative - as there was in Libya and Kosovo (done), Rwanda (ignored) and Bosnia (eventually.)

Writing last month in The Atlantic, Steven Cook argued: "If there is no intervention and political will to stop Assad's crimes remains absent, the world will once again have to answer for standing on the sidelines of a mass murder."

Cook - a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations - asked: "At what point in the body count is international intervention deemed to be an acceptably worthwhile option that can have a positive effect on the situation? After Assad has killed 6,000 people? 7,000? 10,000? 20,000?"

Scholar Fouad Ajami agrees, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper: "Not just the Russians and Chinese, shame to the rest of us. There's abdication elsewhere, by the Turks nearby, abdication by the Arab League and Washington. Washington spent an enormous amount of time chasing after the false mirage [that] maybe we can get the Russians and Chinese on board."

Some also argue that, despite the price, there would also eventually be a strategic gain: a post-al-Assad Syria would unlikely be as close to Iran as is the current regime and might also deprive Hezbollah of critical regional support.

Others see the risks of international intervention as outweighing any benefits, with the danger that civil war would inevitably spill into Lebanon.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice preferred tighter and more coordinated sanctions, saying that "our strong preference is not to fuel what has the potential to become a full-blown civil war" by arming the opposition.

Diplomats expect a new "contact group" on Syria to involve at least the United States, France, the Arab League and Turkey.

"We think that the Assad regime is on its last legs, that the pressure is increasing, the economy is crumbling," Rice said.

Syrians may already be discounting direct intervention by the West. In one YouTube video uploaded Tuesday from Homs, a doctor pleads for help from abroad. But he directs his message to the leaders of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

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Topics: Libya • Syria

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Arab Spring will succeed.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply


    February 10, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply


    February 10, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  4. ms

    Russia doesn't care about the ppl being murdered their concern is profit and China is concerned their people will realize they are being controlled and revolt. That may be simplifying...but that's how i saw it when they vetoed.

    February 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  5. YJ

    so, there wouldn't be any military interventions from foreign countires?

    February 11, 2012 at 3:24 am | Reply
  6. IRANIANS and bashar al kalab ARE EVIL

    yes arm them it is better we die fighting the evil Syrian government than to die in silent like a duck. arm us please those Iranians backed government are less than 12% of Syria and they are killing the majority. it is pay back time and we will win. attack iran and Hezbollah now and then Syria will crumble, cut the supplies root from iraq using airplan to attack all Iranians supplies to Syria. do the same from turkey and Jordan, ask the Iraqi Sunni to put good grip on the Syrian boarder and help Iraqi Sunni to stop Iranians from crossing to Syria, arm the kurds, and ask Israel to arm every body against bashar al asad. cut the economic relationship with Russia and close their embassies

    February 11, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
  7. attack now

    IRANIANS have no balls

    controlling iran oil fields, and attacking command and control, radars, ships is the first thing we must do.
    clean soft target, attack 25 hours non stop and remain air superiority. using turkey bases, gulf bases, Arabian gulf and Arabian seas, Afghanistan base, iraq base up north, most of iran army are not in the mountains , iran has 45 opposition group the ant Iranians are more than 42 millions. help the kurds, ahawas fighters, mojahedi khalq, Assyrians, Arabs, Sunni of iran, Parsi and beloosh, lures and Turks and other minorities to fight, attack Tehran and qum cities and hunt down all those emmams that might run and hide in iraq. attack Hezbollah, all the other evil will fall including bashar al asad in Syria

    February 11, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    this site is jammed again

    February 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    In Libya the Sunni Arab population dominates a Berber minority.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    Syria had been the historic crossroad of many ancient civilsations and culutres. Today it is the faultline where ethnic and religious groups converge in the Middle East.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    The late Muammar Gaddafi was a wayward person and had few allies in the international community. Assad has in Russia a strategic ally at the Security Council, apart from Iran and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  12. Matt

    If you use Libya as an example, the population in Benghazi had increased as people fled to the area from other parts of Libya. Qaddafi was hours away from going in an slaughtering hundreds of thousands in one swoop. That is what got the R2P over the line. Partly Russia was trying to prevent Qaddafi from doing something silly, that there was no comeback from, then try to broker some form of a deal. And there was a split among the Russian internally over that question to abstain or not. So the number for some in Russia at least for Medvedev was a few hundred thousand in a larger scale massacre, for Putin there is no limit to the death toll. If you use Libya as an example, then you have to take into account the bad blood over Libya which means the factional support that Medvedev had for Libya would have shrunk in relation to Syria or any other intervention.

    You look at Afghanistan and Iraq, the longer there is violence and destruction the more the population becomes immune from social norms and radicalized. The Arab world are not burning US flags or Israeli flags they are burning Russian flags. al-Qaida seeking to stay relevant take their lead from the Arab street. So there will be some form of blowback to the Russians. I doubt that al-Qaida is behind the car bombings, al-Qaida has connections to both Syria and Iran so it is a strategic dilemma. But there is a vacuum created that al-Qaida will hope to re-energize support among the Sunni's.

    But lets be clear the Sons of Iraq are not al-Qaida and Sunni tribes involved in the Syrian uprising does not mean that they are involved with Iraq, even if they are using what some may call terror. The opposition cannot get medical aid and Homs is being shelled. So it is fine for people to say that it is terror, but a few car bombs and knocking a doctor as a response to the regimes actions. You cannot call it terrorism, is what the regime doing in Homs not terror, the UN will not condemn that so what is the difference, the regime has tanks and artillery and the opposition has car bombs and small arms. The defectors and opposition are fighting for their lives so it is not for us to say what is acceptable and what is not.

    February 11, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  13. matt a.

    Of course they're subtle and obvious differences between Syria and Libya. But the commonality is that restive populations in both countries are searching for freedom. Lets hope they find a way.

    February 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Reply
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