Why Intervene in Libya, but not Syria?
By Advocacy Coordinator Maria Thomson
In the midst of developing situations in Libya and Syria in recent weeks, many policy commentators have questioned divergent US actions regarding the two conflicts which, at face value, share similar traits of opposition movements against entrenched, corrupt dictatorships and governmental violence against civilians. Beyond this convenient categorization, however, lies a number of significant differences between the Libyan and Syrian conflicts which necessitate unique approaches in US policy.
The United States’ decision to engage in the Libyan conflict by way of supporting the NATO-led “no-fly zone” derived from many situational factors. Qaddafi never denied his intent to violently suppress protestors, and issued strong direct statements that he would “show no mercy” to protesters and that “we will find you in your closets.” These were severely startling to many international observers, and reports of atrocities against civilians coinciding with these statements jumpstarted conversations internationally over possibilities for greater preventative action.
Contributing to these conversations were the voices of Libyan civilians themselves, many of whom criticized the US and international community for not taking greater action faster. Secondly, though rebel forces fluctuated in a series of advancements and retreats, Qaddafi’s forces were vulnerable, as he had “deliberately neglected the 50,000-member army to diminish its ability to topple him” and thus made the proposed military and tactical support from NATO more likely to be successful. Additionally, Qaddafi’s administration not only had few allies internationally or locally, but rather had many opponents, including Egypt and Tunisia on its right and left, which had each just undergone democratic uprisings of their own and had little sympathy for Qaddafi. Crucially, the Arab League also endorsed the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, contributing to a strong international coalition in favor of the policy. Ultimately, concern over increasing violence against civilians as well as strong pressure from human rights advocacy constituencies led the UNSC to express support for the intervention, which has been working steadily with Libyan rebel forces to date.
With respect to the situational considerations made in deciding to support the no-fly zone, circumstances in Syria were — and continue to be — quite disparate from those in Libya. Where Qaddafi candidly stated his purpose, Bashar al-Assad has refused to admit to violence or human rights abuses against civilians, and is instead claiming to be a reformer and arguing that the government is the victim of a “foreign conspiracy.” This denial has discouraged several UNSC members (notably, Russia and China) from supporting stronger consequences for Assad’s regime, and the countries have alternatively been “simply urging Syrian authorities to speed up their proposed reforms.” Additionally, Russia continues to sell Syria weaponry, citing a lack of international sanctions forbidding it to do so. This source of defense for Assad’s government would make even more difficult a military intervention that would already be struggling against an army much stronger than Libya’s (at 325,000 regular forces and over 100,000 paramilitary) and strongly loyal to the ruling Baath party. Moreover, protesters have not called for any foreign intervention, and their consistently nonviolent demonstrations indicate no place for or interest in foreign military involvement. (Even if a military intervention were to be approved, Syrian protesters’ lack of systemic weapons use would mean that foreign interveners would hold more responsibility in this mission, unlike the supporting role NATO assumed in Libya). Furthermore, Syria has a strong alliance with Iran, as well as relationships with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, so some foreign policy analysts believe resorting to military intervention in Syria could escalate violence and disrupt delicate attempts by the Obama administration to promote Arab-Israeli peace. Tony Badran from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies commented, "For the president to take a forceful approach to Syria, they’d have to admit that the policy of engagement with Syria was an absolute failure and that they have to completely recalibrate the policy."
Given these divergences from the situation in Libya, foreign military intervention does not appear to be an appropriate policy approach for influencing Assad’s regime and mitigating atrocities against nonviolent protesters. Rather, human rights advocacy constituencies are pushing for more severe sanctions for the Syrian government, particularly in the energy sector, serving both to directly limit governmental resources and render continued violence against civilians unprofitable, as well as to set an example for other countries to follow.
The Syria Sanctions Act of 2011 (S. 1472) establishes penalties within the US for any companies that continue to participate in Syria’s petroleum sector, by way of contract prohibition, denial of loans, and blocking of property. This would essentially force foreign companies to choose between continuing operations in Syria or avoiding serious consequences in the United States.
In examining the potential impact of these sanctions on civilians populations, policy analysts at the Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition have determined that the preexisting economic conditions created by continued unrest in Syria have been and will continue to be significantly more damaging than would be the newly proposed sanctions. These economic conditions include:
- Unilateral reduction in oil exports, representing a loss of at least US $127 million in total oil receipts over July alone;
- The destruction of Syria’s tourism industry, which annually generated US $8 billion and represented approximately 13% of the national GDP prior to unrest;
- The devaluation of the Syrian pound, which had fallen 17% by August and will increasingly affect Syrians living on fixed or marginal incomes; and
- Pre-existing economic conditions, such as economic inequality and uneven growth, which caused 6.7 million Syrians (33.6% of the population) to be considered impoverished by UNDP as of 2007.
The Syria Sanctions Act of 2011 represents a crucial opportunity to take action in changing the direction of governmental violence and oppression in Syria. With more questions about S. 1472, or to find out how you can get involved in advocacy efforts, please contact Maria Thomson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Exercise your privilege of a democratic government and make your voice heard!