Syria looks over its shoulder – Sami Moubayed*
The dramatic developments in Libya have raised eyebrows throughout the Arab world and within the international community. In the early hours of August 21, Libyan rebels finally entered the capital, Tripoli, with the aim of arresting – or killing – Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Common sense dictates that Gaddafi’s days are numbered; he will be gone, one way or another, within days.
Gadhafi has lasted five months of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strikes. Had he not shot at his own people when young Libyans rebelled on February 17, then perhaps his fortunes would have played out better. He might have been allowed a dignified exit, for example, and offered an exile in Italy. He is now either going to be dragged in chains to the International Criminal Court or might commit suicide before angry Libyans get hold of him and tear him apart.
In typical fashion, Gaddafi spoke to what remains of his supporters on Sunday, accusing his enemies of being « traitors » who want to « give » Libya to the French. He shouted, « March forward! March forward! March forward! They have lost. Now is [their ending]. » His bravado echoed those of Saddam Hussein on the eve of Iraq’s 1991 war with the United States, when he said, « We and the Americans are at the tip of the pyramid – and we will see who falls off first! » History remembers only too well who fell first, with the dictator meeting his end in a hangman’s noose.
Many would have expected Gaddafi’s collapse to spark happiness in the angry Syrian street, where rebels have been trying to topple the Damascus regime since mid-March. On the contrary, many Syrians were clearly worried as news of the march into Tripoli reached Damascus.
True, they hate Gaddafi and long to see his end – but as of Sunday morning it was no longer Gadhafi that mattered to Libya-observers inside Syria. Rather, it was Syria itself. Having succeeded in Libya, NATO might now rethink its options on Syria, where pressure has been growing from the international community for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Internationalizing the Syrian crisis militarily has to date not been on many minds in Syria – until now. Few on the Syrian street and within the opposition have contemplated any kind of foreign intervention, claiming that political escalation and sanctions headed by the Barack Obama White House is one thing, an armed attack by NATO quite another.
For weeks, people have been saying: « No matter what happens, NATO will never strike Syria. » That made sense as long as the mess in Libya dragged on – Western taxpayers were fed up with fighting a war that did not concern them and that was failing to achieve its end objective: getting rid of Colonel Gadhafi.
The London Financial Times recently reported on a Pentagon memo in June saying that the cost of U.S. involvement in the Libya war was a staggering US$2 million a day. Libya was supposed to pay for the war effort from its oil – once NATO operations ended by getting rid of Gaddafi.
Before last weekend, the Italians sent their aircraft back to Italy while Britain withdrew its spy plane. Canada was preparing to pull out, the Danes were complaining and Norwegians had dropped out entirely – mainly due to financial fatigue.
All of this became history on Sunday when Libyan rebels entered the capital and captured three of Gadhafi’s sons, including Saif al-Islam, according to the rebel National Transitional Council.
Now world leaders might be thinking that the military campaign was not as bad as it seemed, and although Syria doesn’t have the same wealth to pay off a war effort as is the case with Libya, an operation could be financed by some Gulf countries, for example, if its end results were 100% guaranteed.
Earlier this month, Russia’s envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told the popular Russian newspaper Izvestia that the organization was planning a military campaign against Syria, similar to the Libyan one. This was « leaked » shortly after international pressure mounted on Damascus when the Saudi, Tunisian, Swiss, Bahraini and Kuwaiti ambassadors were withdrawn from the Syrian capital.
Then came a wild story in Debka, a Jerusalem-based « Israeli military intelligence » website, saying that NATO was planning to arm Syrian rebels ahead of an upcoming attack on Syria itself. According to the controversial report, large caches of weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, mortar bombs, and heavy machine guns, will be sent to Syrian cities, all escorted by the Turkish army, for use against the Syrian government.
Both the Russian diplomat’s words and those of Debka are hard to believe – for now. Depending on how events unfold in Libya over the next few days, the NATO option might become closer to reality than ever before – at least in the minds of some world leaders.
The fundamental difference between Syria and Libya, however, is that unlike Libya – where rebels called for foreign intervention from day one – many Syrians do not want a NATO attack as it is feared this would only strengthen the state and rally ordinary Syrians around the government.
Military intervention would create unbelievable damage to the economy, infrastructure and morale. Additionally, Syria is not Libyan wasteland; a country that is underdeveloped, plain and empty. To state the obvious, although very large in territory (the 17th largest in the world) Libya has only 6 million people divided mainly between Benghazi and Tripoli, whereas Syria is packed with 22 million people.
The slightest « mistake » as the many committed by NATO in Libya would be catastrophic for the people of Syria. In addition to being more ethnically and religiously diverse, its terrain is filled with historical monuments, some dating back 5,000 years, schools, crowded residential districts and large bazaars.
Its territory has not been under attack since 1945, when the French army bombarded its capital during the colonial era. Simply put, its people are not used to war, unlike the Libyans – and more importantly – they don’t want it to happen.
The Syrians feel that they can solve their problems on their own, whether by democratizing the regime, keeping it as it is, or bringing it down completely.
*Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.