Syria and Libya: Lessons in how and how not to support people power
If Syria is emerging as a model for US and European support of the Arab revolt, Libya is becoming an example of how not to respond.
With a rebel victory uncertain four months into NATO’s bombing campaign designed to enforce a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya, the trans-Atlantic alliance seems more divided than ever over how to proceed.
In the clearest indication of a shifting mood within NATO, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé has called for a political solution to the Libyan crisis and expressed support for efforts by the African Union to mediate between the NATO-backed rebels and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said in separate remarks that the time for a political solution in Libya had come. He said NATO had achieved its goal of making clear with its bombing campaign that the crisis could not be resolved by force.
The African Union at a summit in Equatorial Guinea earlier this month said talks with the rebels should take place without Mr. Qaddafi but stopped short of calling for the Libyan leader’s resignation. South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane insisted immediately after the summit that whatever deal was reached would not force Mr. Qaddafi to go into exile.
Mr. Juppé’s remarks follow a call by Italy last month to halt hostilities for humanitarian reasons. The statements by the foreign and defense ministers are particularly significant given that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was a driving force behind the military intervention in Libya and one of the first to recognize the Benghazi-based rebel Transition Nation al Council (TNC) as the legitimate representative of Libya. France admitted earlier this month that it was providing the rebels with arms.
Some TNC leaders appear to have anticipated the French turnaround and shifting mood within Libya even if Messrs. Juppé and Longuet’s remarks are likely to come as a shock to many rebels, who feel that they have been able to advance militarily in recent weeks.
In a significant but controversial softening of rebel demands, TNC chairman Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said earlier this month that Mr. Qaddafi’s opponents had dropped their demand that the Libyan leader and his family go into exile as part of any deal to end the five-month-old crisis in the North African country. In response, Mr. Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi asserted that his father was willing to negotiate a ceasefire, elections and democratic reform but would fight to the bitter end to retain his right to remain in Libya.
Mr. Qaddafi claimed on Monday in an interview with an Algerian newspaper that his father’s regime was negotiating directly with Mr. Sarkozy through an envoy. He quoted Mr. Sarkozy as telling the envoy that the TNC was a French creation populated by people France controlled. French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero denied direct contacts but said France had been passing messages through intermediaries to Mr. Qaddafi’s regime.
The French turnaround and push for a negotiated end to the fighting in Libya signals a growing realization within NATO that foreign intervention is unlikely to serve either the interests of the West or of anti-government protesters facing brutal crackdowns by autocratic leaders determined to cling to power no matter the cost. It is however likely to raise questions about the reliability of Western support but sends a powerful message to protesters across the region like in Syria not to count on Western intervention if and when the going gets tough.
That is a realization that has already made its mark in Syria where protesters in contrast to Libya have not called for military intervention despite the crackdown. Libyans called for foreign assistance in March when Mr. Qaddafi’s forces were on the verge of attacking their stronghold in the eastern city of Benghazi. The imminent attack and the calls prompted the United Nations Security Council to impose the no fly zone in a bid to protect the lives of civilians.
With NATO hopes dashed that its bombing campaign in Libya would produce either a rapid rebel victory or a palace coup against Mr. Qaddafi serving as a lesson, the United States and Europe have opted for a much more quiet, long-term strategy in Syria that could emerge as a model for any future revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.
The US and Europe have so far confined themselves to imposing economic sanctions, condemning regime brutality, calling on the president to create space for dialogue and protests, and enhancing the capability of Syrians to communicate with the outside world through the Internet. By doing so they have avoided the embarrassment they have so far suffered in Libya by demanding the resignation of a leader without the ability to impose their will.
To be sure, there are major differences between Libya and Syria. Mr. Qaddafi’s 41 years in power won him few friends in the international community as opposed to Mr. Assad who may not be liked but is viewed as a devil with whom a certain degree of business can be conducted. The Libyan rebels moreover unlike their Syrian counterparts were able to take control of parts of the country and establish a clearly identifiable leadership.
Libya nonetheless is increasingly being perceived as a failure with NATO members looking for a negotiated way out. In Syria, western nations have had to endure criticism from human rights groups who feel they are not doing enough to stop the bloodshed. Nonetheless, Western strategy in Syria is one of vocal condemnation with little downside and quiet assistance that aligns the United States and Europe with the protesters without the risk of creating expectations they can’t live up to.
For what it is worth, the realization that foreign military intervention constitutes a strategy prone with risks also serves to preserve the original character of the Arab revolt: an indigenous people power uprising that thrives on its own power and perseverance, and that in Syria has shown remarkable resilience and determination as well as a willingness and ability to pay a very dear price.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])