Worldview: Stop Syria? It's not as easy as Libya

Western intervention to halt the violence could make things worse.

Posted: September 04, 2011

Now that NATO has helped to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, some pundits are calling for similar action against Syria.

So far the chorus is muted, composed mainly of op-eds by neoconservatives who promoted the Iraq war. Back then they were certain that regime change in Baghdad would undercut Iran and make the region Israel-friendly (the opposite happened). They now argue that regime change in Damascus - a close friend to Iran - would undercut Tehran and help Israel.

They want NATO to take on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next.

On the surface, it's easy to dismiss them. Neither the American public nor the White House is keen on more U.S. military interventions. Polls show only 12 percent of the public thinks the United States should get more involved in the Syrian crisis. And NATO members have ruled out for now any military move against the Syrian regime.

Yet, given today's deranged political climate, the calls for intervention in Syria may grow louder. Republicans are eager to snipe at President Obama's supposed foreign-policy weakness and Republican front-runner Rick Perry calls for the United States to "renew our commitment of taking the fight to the enemy." Which enemy does he have in mind? Syria? Iran?

Moreover, those who believe in humanitarian intervention to prevent the slaughter of civilians may join the call for action on Syria. After all, the justification for NATO's no-fly zone over Libya was to prevent mass slaughter in Benghazi; Syrian leader Assad continues to slaughter civilians who are peacefully calling for reforms in their country. Despite Assad's ban on news coverage, shocking videos are leaking out of the carnage.

So, rather than dismiss comparisons between the Libyan and Syrian rebellions, we should focus on their differences lest we get sucked into another military intervention - one that we will regret.

Libya was a special case, dissimilar to other Arab revolutions. Indeed - heed this point closely - every Arab revolt has been unique, and needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

In the Libyan case, several unique factors made NATO intervention possible.

The bizarre Gadhafi was personally despised by almost every Arab leader, Sunni or Shiite, for crimes and assassinations he'd committed or attempted. This was the key reason the Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya. The Arab League endorsement persuaded the Russians and Chinese not to veto a U.N. Security Council vote for the no-fly zone.

Other key factors: Libya's location, far from the Arab heartland, with a small Sunni Arab population, and lots of oil to buy off its people; this meant Libyan regime change was not seen as a threat by most Arab leaders. None of these special circumstances applies in the Syrian case.

Syria sits in the center of the Arab heartland. "Every country in the region has vital security interests in Syria," says Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at Tufts University.

Assad has a much stronger military machine than did Gadhafi, and is still supported by a sizable segment of the Syrian population that fears chaos. If he falls, a brutal sectarian civil war seems likely.

Syria straddles the Mideast's Shia-Sunni fault line. The Assad regime is led by Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, while the bulk of the population is Sunni. Assad's exit would touch off a round of Shiite-Sunni bloodletting that could spread to neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Iraq.

Given the uncertainties about what would follow Assad, Arab leaders are not certain they want him to fall. "No one [in the region] wants the current situation but no one is comfortable with what is coming," says Nasr. "No one thinks there would be a soft landing" after Assad's demise," he adds.

In such circumstances, no Arab endorsement would be forthcoming for Western military intervention, nor is any Security Council resolution likely.

Moreover, as Nasr notes, no one should assume that the fall of the Assad regime will necessarily help Israel - or seriously harm Tehran.

The Syrian opposition is disorganized and weak, with liberals mostly in exile; the likely winners after a regime change would be Sunni Islamists, perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood.

A new regime led by Sunni Islamists might loosen Assad's tight ties with Shiite Tehran, but that hardly means it would cut them. It might stop openly shipping weapons to Israel's enemies, such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah, but that doesn't mean it would be friendly to Jerusalem.

"A change of regime might mean the Syrian-Israeli border becomes hot again," says Nasr, with new Syrian rulers pressing harder to regain the Golan Heights. Such a regime, he believes, would find much common cause with Hezbollah - and the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza.

This doesn't mean the West shouldn't look for nonmilitary ways to help the Syrian opposition, including tighter sanctions on Assad's government. It does mean that Washington should have no illusions that Syrian regime change will realign the region in the West's favor.

"We have to put pressure on Assad but not charge ahead," says Nasr. "One thing we should have learned from Iraq is that the choices are not between black and white but between shades of gray."

And each Arab revolution is a different shade of gray.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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