Does Gaddafi's fate await Assad?
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
NEW YORK - After Libya it is Syria's turn, or is it? In the end game of the
campaign to cause regime change in Libya, the question has gained momentum in
policy circles East and West. The answer depends on whether Syria's political
crisis leads to more civilian deaths, thus warranting an United Nations
Security Council "humanitarian intervention" that would authorize another
military gambit from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the
volatile Middle East.
In the wake of last week's momentous call by the United States and a number of
other Western governments for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to
step down, the government faces unprecedented international pressure. This is
likely to intensify in the coming weeks if the cycle of violence in the country
does not end.
The fall of Libya's ossified dictator, Muammar Gaddafi - and the
potent symbol of rebel fighters stamping on a gilded bronze of his head after
raiding his compound in Tripoli - will most likely embolden the (rather
amorphous) political opposition in Syria, backed by Saudi Arabia and other
conservative Arab states. In all likelihood, this will also make it easier for
the neighboring Turkey to use the threat of NATO intervention to dictate policy
For now, however, a combination of factors actually make it less likely that
Syria will become another Libya, where a home-grown armed opposition backed by
Western military powers is on the verge of success after a pitched, half-year
long battle to dislodge the despot who managed to rule over Libya for decades
with Western support.
These factors range from the absence of consensus in the international
community, in light of Russia's decision to distance itself from US President
Barack Obama's "step down" order and call instead for more time for peaceful
reform in Syria, to Iran's solid backing for Damascus, NATO's own financial
burden, and the risks to Turkey posed by the ordeal of a "Syrian nightmare"
across its border.
Indeed, the down side of NATO's Libya campaign is that it has depleted the
available resources for another campaign in the immediate future, particularly
since Syria will definitely prove a much more formidable opponent than
Gaddafi's rag-tag mostly militia army. A NATO campaign in Syria will cause a
much bigger flood of refugees to Turkey, damage Turkey's relations with both
Iran and Russia and turn upside down its cherished foreign policy approach of
"zero problems with neighbors."
On the other hand, if NATO makes a habit of it by going into Syria next, then
the pressure on the Western alliance to target US-friendly regimes in Bahrain
and Yemen will undoubtedly grow as well, hardly a bright prospect for Saudi
leaders who are so keen to cause a regime change in Damascus.
Not only that, a NATO intervention in Syria will without a shred of doubt lead
to Iran's direct military support for Damascus, another big difference with
Libya, which lacked an external ally. Perhaps equally important is the
existence of an external enemy - namely, Israel - which serves to unite Syria
in a strong nationalist current which Libya under Gaddafi lacked. Confronted
with an intransigent Israel unwilling to negotiate away the prized strategic
Golan Heights, Syria is locked-in, geostrategically speaking, and no matter
what future variations in its form of government, the constant variable of
external threats will prevent a wholesale foreign policy reorientation in Syria
irrespective of who is in power.
But, in addition to purely military-strategic calculations pointing at the vast
dissimilarities of Libya and Syria, the political milieu in the two countries
differs in another important respect: the Syrian regime is far more complex and
more capable of self-reform, within set limits. (See
Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis, Stratfor, May 5, 2011) As a result,
Assad's promise of meaningful constitutional change, free elections come next
March, and allowing a multi-party political environment to flourish, together
with his decision to allow a UN inspection of his country's political
situation, may prove to be a step just in time to avert a full-scale civil war
akin to Libya.
An important factor is the speed of political reconciliation and near-term
elections; March may be seven months away but to placate the impatient
political opposition Assad may want to accelerate the process by holding the
elections in December or January and, equally important, making good on his
promise in a televised interview with Syrian TV regarding the rights of
political parties to function without fear of a clamp down.
In light of these factors, political reform rather than violent revolution
coupled with external intervention appears to be the most likely scenario
awaiting Syria, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious post-colonial nation that
plays a crucial role in the "axis of resistance" to Western hegemony in the