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Why NATO Cannot Deal with Syria, in the Same Way as Libya

The Assad regime’s persistent use of deadly force to crush a 16-month uprising by Syrian rebels is now expected to continue without foreign intervention, leaving many observers wondering why the same NATO coalition that was willing to enforce a UN-approved no-fly zone in Libya is unwilling to follow the same course of action in Syria. The answer is simple: Syria is not Libya, and this differentiation is made all the more clear by the geopolitical interests, great power relations, and the harsh realities of realpolitik that are involved.

Syrian Riots

Just a few years ago, the idea of a Syrian uprising against half a century of Ba’athist rule seemed unthinkable. What began as peaceful protests against deplorable economic conditions and never-ending emergency laws evolved into a spontaneous Syrian uprising in Daraa in March, 2011. From the outset, the Syrian government made it clear that it would respond to the protests with deadly force, but it probably didn’t bank on its own violent response leading to a series of army defections and the eventual formation of an armed opposition group known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA)

It has been estimated that more than 14,000 Syrians have been killed in the uprising, but these casualty figures tend to be understated by the government and overstated by the opposition, thus an accurate casualty count remains elusive. Furthermore, the current debacle in Syria is not new; it is reminiscent of an earlier uprising in the city of Hama three decades earlier. In 1982, conservative Sunnis and Islamist groups who shared the common goal of overthrowing what they viewed as a corrupt secular, nationalist Ba’ath party managed to seize control of parts of Hama. Hafez al-Assad crushed the revolt with brutal force. Three decades later, his son Bashar is following in his footsteps.

Several pundits and politicians, including Republican Senator John McCain, are calling for military intervention in Syria. Their argument follows a predictable logic: if military action was carried out by NATO in Libya to supposedly protect the residents of Benghazi from an ‘imminent’ massacre at the hands of Gaddafi and his loyalists, then why hasn’t NATO intervened in Syria to avoid a similar humanitarian crisis? The question assumes that the two situations are analogous and can be dealt with in the exact same way.

First, we must understand that Syria is not Libya. Whereas Gaddafi commanded an army of around 50,000 ill equipped and poorly trained troops, Syria boasts a much larger and more powerful army. Syria’s military also has a superior air defense system with more modern and sophisticated technology, meaning that NATO would have a more difficult time enforcing a Syrian no-fly zone. Even the terrain of both states is markedly different. Syria’s dense, urban environment poses more problems than Libya’s dessert terrain. Moreover, Syria is nearly four times as populated as Libya, meaning there is a greater risk for collateral damage and a harder time justifying any sustained military action.

Most importantly, however, the reason for the absence of foreign military intervention in Syria is largely the result of the support it receives from two great powers: Russia and (to a lesser extent) China. This support has helped prevent the passage of any UN sanctions against the Assad regime. Both Russia and China vetoed two punitive Security Council draft resolutions aimed at Syria- one in October of 2011 and another last February. The resolutions would have called for an immediate end to the Assad government’s crackdown on the uprising and would have pressured Assad to pull Syrian troops from population centres. The Russian and Chinese shielding of the Assad regime has dealt a blow to any unified international stance against the Syrian crackdown.

For Moscow, Syria is its last ally in the region; its last hope of maintaining a presence in the eastern Mediterranean and its only sphere of influence left in the Middle East. Russia’s relationship rests heavily on its military ties, investment and trade with the Assad regime. Currently, Russian business investments in Syria’s energy and tourism industries, along with several major infrastructure projects, amount to nearly $20 billion. And contracts for future arms deliveries are estimated to be worth $4 billion.

Russia also maintains a strategic Soviet-era naval base in the Mediterranean port city of Tartus- its last military base outside the former Soviet Union. The base in Tartus allows Russia to strengthen its naval presence in the Mediterranean, and the continued existence of the base would be called into question if the Assad regime were to be toppled. Thus, it should come as no real surprise that Russian officials have continually warned against a Libyan-style intervention in Syria.

Syria also enjoys a cordial relationship with Iran that dates back to Syria’s controversial support during Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Iraq. A military confrontation with Syria would have wider regional implications. A Syrian intervention could draw Iran into the conflict. Consequently, Iran would likely use its militant proxies to endanger Western interests, causing an already volatile region to become further destabilized.

In contrast, Gaddafi’s regime had virtually no regional allies, most leaders viewed him as a nonsensical maniac and, unlike in Syria, the Arab League (which is sometimes falsely presumed to be the mouthpiece of Arab public opinion) actually welcomed a no-fly zone in Libya. Even Russia eventually conceded that Gaddafi lost all his legitimacy to govern Libya, having gone so far as to encourage him to step down from power (though Moscow later slammed NATO forces for using the protection of civilians granted under the UN mandate (UNSC Resolution 1973) to actively pursue regime change).

It is important to consider that Assad still receives the support of a sizeable portion of the Syrian population. This is especially true of the Alawite and Christian populations who fear the prospect of reprisals in a post-Assad Syria. With Alawites monopolizing  political and military positions of power within the Syrian state, and with the military still loyal to the Syrian government, inducing Assad to relinquish his power will be no easy feat.

Additionally, two of the regime’s strongholds, Damascus and Aleppo, have been spared much of the violence when compared to Idlib, Hama, Homs, and Darra. These two strongholds are crucial for the regime’s survival. The lack of any organized opposition in these two critical cities will prevent any credible challenge to Assad’s rule. The prospect of military intervention against a Syrian regime which stills receives significant support among its population is unlikely.

In Libya, however, there was an identifiable opposition group (National Transitional Council), with a definite territorial stronghold (Benghazi) and actual governing duties. Furthermore, even before the no-fly zone was enforced, the Libyan rebels were already in firm control over much of eastern Libya. While the NTC struggled to coordinate common guidelines and was, at times, powerless to control the fragmented rebel groups and militias that were fighting against the Gaddafi government, there was a more organized command hierarchy. It should also be noted that among those countries that no longer recognized Gaddafi’s government, the NTC was unanimously recognized as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The same cannot be said of the Syrian opposition. Their lack of organization, unity and resources continue to plague the future prospects of their revolution.


How Syria would look in a post-Assad transition is difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy. We might see groups including the Alawites, Sunnis, Druze and Kurdish communities vying for power in a post-Assad Syria. Islamist factions, who have been marginalized from Syrian politics since the beginning of Ba‘athist rule in 1963, would almost certainly pose their own challenge. The prospect of an Iraq-style sectarian civil war in Syria between Alawites, Christians and the long-oppressed Sunni majority is very possible. There are already sectarian undertones embedded in the civil unrest. A sectarian war, exacerbated by foreign military intervention, would be a mess that NATO would rather not get entangled in.

Critics may point out that, unlike in Libya, there are not any significant long-term foreign oil interests at play in Syria. Indeed, Syria exports very little oil to other states, and the oil industry accounts for only 20% of Syria’s GDP. But the lack of substantial energy resources in Syria does not preclude the possibility of military intervention. Western opposition to Syria is primarily derived from Syria’s close relationship with Iran. And while the presence of securable energy resources and a potentially friendly transitional regime certainly contribute to the desirability of regime change, these are only two aspects in the matrix of strategic factors that weigh on the decision whether or not to intervene. Without Russian and Iranian support, the Syrian government would be at greater risk of foreign military intervention, oil interests or not.

By. Chris Mansur

Chris Mansur is a contributor at Geopoliticalmonitor.com

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  • Philip Andrews on July 03 2012 said:
    What an astonishing article on Syria! The author can write 15 paragraphs on Syria witout once mentioning...Iran...!?

    I mean the Iranians have only been in Iran since the 70s, have practically run and supported the government of Hafez al Assad and his son, and used Syria as a transit route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet not one mention...

    Yet he mentions Russia, which also operates in and through Iran, and China, which works more through Iran than Syria, considering as its a/the chief purchaser of ...Iranian..oil...

    However I don't blame the author entirely. The West seems to have a distinct blind spot with regard to Iran, except for the 'tunnel vision' issues of the nuclear and sanctions. Just HOW Iran is supporting Syria seems to have become a 'black hole' in terms of Western information provision. Not even Stratfor does much with this.

    Iran is THE big difference between Syria and Libya. Iran controls Iraq and has delicate relations with Turkey. It controls Hezbollah in Lebanon, yet Lebanon is also a Syrian power prerogative (as in Greater Syria). Syria is seen as the make or break for Iranian Shia power projection from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

    Iran has enourmously powerful and well organised networks in Syria. This is probably the one factor that has kept Assad and the Alawites in power so long - they are convenient for Iran and Alawites are related to Shia's or so I understand.

    Russia operates through both Iran and Syria. China increasinglky with Iran. These powers are 'realpolitik' players. China wants oil at any price from Iran. Russia has influence at stake. Neither would want to get rid of Assad and see any kind of Jihadist/MB/Wahhabi regime in Damascus that would exacerbate the threat of Islamic terrorism many fold in the region. Assad might be cruerl and murderous to his enemies but what might replace him might be many times worse. It most certainly wouldn't be better.

    The West in decline seems to harbour this fond illusion that 'get rid of a dictator and you'll get demahcracy'. Esp. US politicians of the Bushian variety began to see every regime change intervention as a rerun of WW2 Normandy to Berlin. That's their illusion bubble.

    Iraq is a roughly 22 million population of conflicted groupings. Syria is also a 20 million pop of conflicted groupings. The same woild happen in Syria as in Iraq, and in Libya but on a smaller scale.

    Do we really want another 10 year mess?
  • International Perspective on July 04 2012 said:

    The author clearly mentions Iran and its long-time relation with Syria. In fact, the author even mentions that Iranian support has lessened the risk of a military intervention, which seems to be what what you're arguing for.

    Your claim that Iran has "practically run the [Syrian government]" is a gross misunderstanding of their relationship. The Iranian-Syrian relationship grew out of a mistrust and contempt of Saddam. Their interests have intersected since then, largely out of similar foreign policy objectives (e.g. countering American influence in the region and restraining the power of Israel). The idea that the Iranian regime has coerced the Assads into doing what the Assads feel is not in their interests is simply erroneous.

    What you're failing to see is that Russia is the major player that has protected Syria from any sanctions and risk of military intervention. Iran alone would not be able to provide this protection as it is not a 'great power' and hence, does not have the same military/economic/diplomatic flexibility as Russia. Iran could not veto any UN security council sanctions; Iran could not use its diplomatic leverage to argue against regime change in Syria. It could not flex its military muscles to make intervention less appealing. Russia has done all of these. The author is correct in saying that Russia continues to be the primary reason why NATO is not in Syria.

    Everything else you said is a reiteration of the article (e.g. sectarian unrest, no viable replacement of Assad, etc).
  • neretva'43 on July 07 2012 said:
    And Philip Andrews is, of course, right. Without Iran approwal nothing is going to happen. Like it or not, your argument of UN is laughable - who is going to "intervine" in Syria? As log as there is modicum of chances of retaliation, the West is not going to commit anything. The regime change war is going to fight with somebody else money and flesh.

    Like it or not this is MULTIPOLAR world and Iran is REAL and relevant player and member of third pole. Iran isn't on margin like European states or Turkey. Iran is source of action; it dictate, direct action on its own and it determined to do it. With or without so-called UN, which is just joke.
  • Philip Andrews on July 08 2012 said:
    When I'm shown to be mistaken I will be the first to apologise. Therefore I apologise to the author for having stated that he did not mention Iran in his article. He did, in paragraph 9 and the last paragraph. Therefore I was mistaken.

    What I should have said instead was that his emphasis on Iran was not nearly strong enough.

    'Your claim that Iran has "practically run the [Syrian government]" is a gross misunderstanding of their relationship'.

    If Iran were not effectively running the Syrian government, how do you explain the fact that the Iranians have been using Syria quite safely as a transit point for supplying Hezbollah in Lebanon?
    When I say running I mean 'advising, influencing and managing from a position of power at one remove'

    Hezbollah have been in Lebanon since at least the 1980s therefore Iran must have been in control of both South Lebanon and Syria sufficiently to guarantee that supply and control route. The fact that there is so little written about the Iranian and Syrian relations since the 70s in English at least is remarkable considering the importance of their relationship.

    Russia is working with Iran to manipulate and influence the Middle East. It is said that the Russian KGB was instrumental in returning Khomeini to Iran and that Khomeini was pro-Russian and pro-Soviet. What you are failing to see is that while Russia provides Iran with the geopolitical clout together with Chinese assistance, the Iranian influence networks have been working very efficiently and effectively throughout the Middle East since at least 79. It is exactly because these networks are so well hidden and elude the scrutiny of the Western intelligence services that few in the West appreciate the extent to which they are effective in projecting Iranian power throughout the region.

    The West tends to think in terms of either World War II or Cold War military power projection, while Asia has developed the asymmetric model quite effectively as an alternative means of power projection. Therefore as the Iranians are well aware that gross displays of power projection sudden military intervention will be effectively destroyed by superior Western military technology, they have developed much more effective and sophisticated networks influence and do a much more efficient and effective job of influence and control throughout the Middle East than naked Western-style military projection.

    I have been a student of the Middle East for 36 years and I am a great admirer of Robert Baer who was probably the best and most intelligent operative the CIA ever had in the Middle East. Between Baer and my other experience of the Middle East as an observer I can say with a measure of ' intuitive certainty' that Iran has been a major player in Syria all along ever since 1979. I see intuitive certainty because gleaning information about Iran and its relations with other states in any detail is akin to drawing blood from a stone. Iranians practice dissimulation to the same extent as their Russian and Chinese allies. And Western intelligence tends to be quite blind to the dissimulation and the underlying realities of the Iranians relationship with the Middle East.

    All I'm really saying is this. Any article or commentary on Syria needs to begin with Iran. The fact that I may have reiterated much of what the author wrote in the first place is because I was trying to place his narrative in the context of an Iranian dominated Middle East. Between the Iranians, Turks and Egyptians the other Arab states are obliged to make their adjustments in terms of notions of sovereignty and independence. Since 1979 Iranian influence has predominated while Western and Israeli influence has lessened. This situation is now coming to a climax in Syria. The historical Iran is re-emerging through their Islamic revolution and is working with both Shia and Sunni. Americans and other Westerners understand that Shia and Sunni are as Protestant and Catholic and will not come together. According to Muslims this is a misunderstanding of the realpolitik of the area as a struggle against Western influence and its representation in the state of Israel is considered a greater objective and overcomes in terms of realpolitik the differences between Shia and Sunni on a regional level.

    Iran over 3000 years has for periods of time been the dominating and all pervasive influence over the Middle East. Not always in terms of state power but in terms of underlying influence.. Iran after 79 is once again a dominating power and this should be fundamental to any article on Syria and Fertile Crescent.

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