The Washington Diplomat / October 2012
By Larry Luxner
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war against his own people claims new victims every day, with bombings, air attacks and reports of atrocities in Syria’s two largest cities — Damascus and Aleppo — becoming so commonplace they no longer make the front pages of U.S. newspapers.
Dominating the headlines instead, at least since Sept. 11, has been the wave of anti-American protests sparked by the now-infamous 14-minute YouTube video that ridicules the prophet Muhammad and Islam. As of press time, those protests had begun to peter out after spreading from Egypt and Libya, where they began, to more than 20 countries stretching from Tunisia and Morocco to Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Yet a particularly vicious attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya — which led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens — may have permanently killed any chances that the United States will extend military help to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
Libya had already been cited as a case study of why the U.S. should stay out of Syria’s civil war. Unlike the inchoate rebel factions trying to topple Assad, Libyans offered a united front against the Qaddafi regime, with a well-defined territory under their control, a desert landscape more conducive to NATO-led air strikes (as opposed to the close-quarters urban combat in Syria), and a capable transitional government that quickly took the reins of the rebel movement and put a Western-friendly face on the opposition. Last but not least, Libya’s tremendous oil wealth meant the country could get back on its feet without much outside assistance — not the case with Syria.
Libya, in short, was ripe for an intervention, evidenced by the relative success story it had become — until, that is, the Benghazi attack. Now questions are being raised about the fragile government’s ability to stabilize a country awash in militias and arms, even though Libya’s leaders are still firmly in the pro-American camp compared to nations such as Egypt.
And if Washington is having second thoughts about Libya, just imagine what it thinks about Syria, where intervention is fraught with far more risk.
It’s not that the United States doesn’t want to do something about the mess in Syria.
To date, an estimated 20,000 people have been killed in that 18-month uprising. According to the United Nations, another 2.5 million people need humanitarian aid, 1.2 million have been displaced within Syria, and an estimated 225,000 have sought refuge — and strained resources — in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
In the wake of the increasing bloodshed, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave the White House an “F” for its Syria policy and blasted President Barack Obama’s lack of action as “emboldening Assad and discouraging the dissidents.”
Romney has hinted that he would help to arm the rebels, who are now reportedly receiving weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, with the U.S. government offering nonlethal assistance.
But the latest explosion of rage throughout Muslim world — especially in Libya, where U.S. help was instrumental in ousting Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi from power after 42 years — may cause politicians of both parties to think twice about helping pro-Islamist groups that could later turn those guns against the United States.
“Personally, I believe it will reinforce our sense of caution in approaching the Syrian civil war,” said Richard Murphy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 1974 to 1978 and later dealt with Syria issues as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
“We’ve said repeatedly that we don’t know who’s involved in the opposition. Our intelligence hasn’t been good,” Murphy told The Washington Diplomat. “We’ve been trying for a year to get in touch with the various opposition leaders, be they in the Syrian National Council or the [Free Syrian Army]. We’re uneasy about seeing arms flowing into the country because that brings back memories of what went wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq. People who got a hold of these arms were not well-disposed toward the United States.”
David Mack, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who’s also served in diplomatic posts in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, agrees that the anti-American protests that have convulsed the Arab world over the past few weeks will sour politicians on the idea of beefing up anti-Assad rebels in Syria, some of whom clearly have links to al-Qaeda.
“A lot of people were enthusiastic backers of the idea that we should be going in with a heavy degree of support for Syrian revolutionary groups who remain, in many respects, an unknown quantity both in their ideological approach and in their capabilities,” said Mack, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “The approach of the Obama administration — which has been to resist calls for a real urgent injection of U.S. power behind the Syrian rebels — has shown itself to be the correct course. There is already a lot of skepticism based on the Iraqi experience.”
Indeed, Iraq — not Libya — may be the ultimate cautionary tale against a Syria intervention. With the Iraq War, Americans learned Colin Powell’s infamous Pottery Barn analogy — you break it, you buy it — the hard way. And if the United States didn’t have the stomach to follow through with the nation-building effort there, it certainly won’t put Syria back together if the country falls apart.
But there are other parallels between the two Mideast nations beyond fears that the U.S. would get sucked into another nation-building adventure. Like Iraq, Syria is an ethnically splintered country whose ruling minority Alawites, like the Baathists under Saddam Hussein, would sow chaos if their patrons fell to the rebels.
The Iraq War also left deep scars in a region that still widely views the United States as an occupying power — no matter how much it may try to be on the right side of history in the Arab Spring.
That’s why Murphy, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, says the Obama administration should continue to be cautious.
“The argument that if we don’t do something big to save the people they’ll hate us forever rings pretty hollow in the wake of efforts we made to support the new leadership in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and to get the president of Yemen eased out,” he pointed out. “It didn’t make us any great new friends in the region.”
Allen Keiswetter, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland who has held several high-level positions in the State Department’s Near East Bureau, counsels patience with nations such as Egypt and Libya and says that the events of the past few weeks “reflect in no way” any failure of American policy.
“This sort of thing is to be expected. Societies in the Arab Spring states are going through a period of transition and turbulence,” he said. “The most violent states are the ones that are democratizing. The ones that are democracies are the most stable, but the process of getting there, these countries must sort out all sorts of internal problems. More than 100 militia groups are known to operate in Libya, particularly in Benghazi. No one knows how those events occurred in Benghazi, and I suspect it will be weeks before we really find out.”
Moreover, It may be years, or even decades, before the West finds out what kinds of governments — democratic, secular, Islamist, an authoritarian repeat of the past — take hold in the Arab world. Concerns over who we’d be arming in Syria get to a much larger question: What kind of government would the rebels form if they ever got their act together and ousted Assad?
The Syrian strongman’s regime might look like a dream by comparison.
Even if Assad goes, radical jihadists could step in to fill the vacuum, or the country could plunge further into civil war as its many different factions vie for power — armed to the hilt thanks to the West’s good intentions.
Because of all these unknowns, Mideast hands such Aaron David Miller say the United States should just stay out.
“The time for guilting the United States into expensive and ill-thought-out military interventions has passed. Indeed, the reasons to intervene in Syria — the hope of defusing a bloody religious and political conflict and dealing the Iranian mullahs a mortal blow — are just not compelling enough to offset the risks and the unknowns,” the Woodrow Wilson scholar argued in the Foreign Policy article “Why Syria’s Rebels Can’t Have It All.”
“The reality is that Syria is in the middle of a complex internal struggle with a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There’s no single force on the ground — or constellation of outside powers — that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less.”
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other hawkish Republicans say Obama has already complicated the situation by standing on the sidelines. The former Republican presidential candidate wants the United States to join Sunni allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia in arming the rebels. He’s also pushing for the establishment of a no-fly zone, though he stops short of calling for American boots on the ground.
Critics though say a no-fly zone and other proposals such as “humanitarian corridors” aren’t feasible without inevitably drawing U.S. troops into yet another Mideast quagmire. Moreover, flooding the country with more arms may only make the bloodletting worse.
Republicans dismiss that notion, arguing that the slaughter won’t stop until Assad leaves. Discussing his mid-September visit to Turkey and northern Iraq, McCain told the Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet that other actors are propping Assad up, while the Obama administration remains inexcusably silent.
“So far, even though the resistance has made gains, the support of Bashar al-Assad has also increased from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia, and also by additional arms and equipment over Iraq from Iran and onto Syria,” said McCain. “Six months ago, we did not see fighter airplanes attacking towns. We did not see random killings. But obviously the killings have increased. The real shameful part of this is that the U.S. president has not even spoken up on behalf of the Syrian people. That is a radical departure from any president that I have ever known. My question is, how many more have to die?”
Lots more, suggests Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times — at least when it comes to getting other Arabs to care more about fellow Arabs than about using any pretext to vent their perennial anger toward the United States.
“Twenty thousand people have been killed in Syria over the last year in fighting. Has a single Syrian embassy been ransacked or attacked in the Middle East?” he said Sept. 16, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “There hasn’t been a single protest in the Arab world, yet our embassy in Cairo and our consulate in Libya are ransacked because of a nut-ball film on YouTube. That tells you how confused and fraudulent a lot of these protests are, because I don’t think a YouTube video compares to [the murder] of people created in the image of God.”
If anything, perhaps, the deadly protests in Libya and the larger Arab Spring uprisings have exposed America’s inability to control or even shape events in the region.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, say experts who argue that the Arab revolutions need to belong to the Arab people, and not to Americans trying to dictate their outcomes — which only breeds more anti-U.S. resentment.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking, says Murphy, “but this may turn out to be a crisis that gives the Syrian people who will bring it to an end the sense that they did it on their own. This is a Syrian rebellion, and it may lead to a new self-confidence and less of a conviction that they’re surrounded by conspiracies and manipulated by the world.”