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Why Syria is Not Libya?

Dr Saurabh Misra is Associate Professor at Amity Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Noida.
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  • October 21, 2011

    After the death of Gaddafi one may wonder why Syria has had a safe escape from any action by the UN Security Council as a result of a rare double veto by Russia and China. The events of protests had more or less the same character in both the countries to begin with—mass protests against the government and the demand from the leader to abdicate. The leaders of both Libya and Syria responded in similar ways with crackdown over civilians and violence against the crowd. But, later, the protests in both the countries adopted different trajectories. Consequently, Col. Gaddafi has fallen and the Transitional National Council stands recognized in Libya by the United Nations while Bashar al-Assad still prevails. Definitely, the dynamics of the Syrian domestic politics and the region are peculiar and different from Libya and its surroundings.

    There were disagreements over the nature of resolutions against Libya but Russia and China did not block the UN mandated NATO action by merely abstaining like India, South Africa and Brazil. Though the West, especially the US, has questioned the legitimacy of Assad’s regime, it is not adamant on a regime change while Libya was pushed apparently for the same. Russia and China have vetoed the draft resolution on Syria distributed by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal condemning deadly crackdown on opposition protests and contemplating “measures” under article 41 of the UN Charter. Brazil, India and South Africa think that NATO has gone past the Security Council resolutions while carrying out the strikes against Gaddafi.

    Libya was referred to the International Criminal Court but there is hesitation to do the same with Syria. The Arab League had called on the world community to establish a ‘no fly zone’ over Libya while it is averse to any use of force against Syria. The League is increasing pressure on Damascus but it has not been suspended unlike Libya. Though it has criticised the violence in Syria, it has also proposed a “three-year timetable” for reforms to recognise the legitimate social and political aspirations of the people as a solution to the crisis. There are several reasons why the response to Syria has been different from the Libyan case.

    First and most importantly, though Syria is a concern for Israel and the US, there are good reasons for them to prefer Assad to continue. The Assad family has established itself as moderate and cosmopolitan in its religious preferences while the forces in opposition to Assad definitely have their strong religious and hardline affinities. The more fundamentalist the ruling class in Syria is, the more uncomfortable it would be for Israel. Israel’s border with Syria has been relatively peaceful during the Assads’ rule. Hence, the US and the Western countries are reluctant to remove Bashar al-Assad.

    Second, the ruling Alawis of Syria are Shiites and ‘the Assad family in Damascus has been Iran’s only regional ally since the 1979 revolution, and if it were to fall it would be a tremendous blow to the Iranian regime.’1 Both Iran and Syria have relations with Hamas and cultivated the Hezbollah in Lebanon, acquiring leverage in the regional politics. Israel has deeply strained relationships with these countries on the issue of Palestine and has fought against Lebanon and Syria in the past. The Hezbollah continues to engage in regular skirmishes, firings and shelling aiming to destroy Israel. Iran perceives herself as the leader of the Shiite community in the region and aspires to assume a predominant role. ‘The divide between Muslim and non-Muslim regimes is seen by most of the population of the Middle East as more significant than the division between radical and conservative.’2Therefore, any intervention by external powers will have the potential to destabilize the region seriously, and may engulf the neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, Iraq etc.

    Third, the opposition in Libya was quick to organise and put up a proper armed resistance assisted by NATO airstrikes and military advice while the protesting sections in Syria are divided over the mode of resistance. Libyan rebels are composed of both young and old men—doctors, teachers, defected members of security forces, ministry and the bureaucracy. On the other hand, though the Syrian Diaspora has formed a National Transitional Council with Ghalioun as its leader, there are differences with internal dissidents over the leadership and the mode of struggle. Assad has been remarkably successful in keeping a hold over the armed forces acting against the protesters swiftly.

    Fourth, Gaddafi had lost most of his support and was left with some tribal support in the falling Sirte and the surroundings with which he had maintained longtime relations. On the other hand, Assad’s support base, though in the process of rethinking their support to him, remains intact with him. Despite international criticism Assad has considerable support among the businessmen and Christians in Damascus. No major armed forces defection has been reported. The Syrian armed forces are predominantly Alawite and would detest a Sunni Government after Assad.

    Fifth, Libya ranks much higher (17th) in oil production while Syria ranks 31st. More than 60% of the export earnings of Syria come from oil which is falling due to technological limitations and depleting resources. Comparatively, Syria has a less important economic future than Libya. The reasons for Western interest in Syria are largely political than economic while Libya has much to offer in the oil sector.

    Sixth, the difference in the temperament of the leadership in Libya and Syria is visible. Assad seems to be a calculative politician while Gaddafi turned out to be merely rhetorical. He called the protesters cockroaches (a fascist metaphor) and threatened house to house killing of the rebels’ supporters while Assad has been tactful in handling the international pressure. He has very calculatedly downgraded the action against protestors at the moment when the probable deserters like the oil companies and the Sunni traders started rethinking their support to him. He had pulled out from contesting the elections for the Human Rights Council and opened negotiations with the international community after a heavy crackdown on protestors. Assad has deliberately toned down at the ‘right moment’.

    The gravity of humanitarian crisis due to the crackdown by Assad’s forces and the so called Sabihas had compelled the Security Council, the Arab League, the GCC, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others to condemn his actions. But, both Iran and Turkey have been friendly to Syria for long and have condemned its actions only reluctantly. Turkey now, claims a changed heart, possibly under NATO obligations, but it is suspected of handing over the defected senior army officer back to Syria. Iran is also doing its best to keep Assad in power. Given the criticism against Hezbollah within Syria for its support to the Assad regime and the supporters rethinking their positions, any escalation further or reverting back to heavy crackdowns and death of people may turn the equations against Assad. But, the western tone-down on military action suggests that they may let Assad stay despite all pressures till they get an option. After the veto in Security Council, the international community is left with the option of waiting till the opposition arrives at a consensus on a stable leadership and devices a strategy for further action.