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Syria Deeply Asks: Why Did NATO Intervene in Libya, and Not in Syria?

As a regular feature, inspired by your questions about the Syria conflict, we’ve rounded up answers from some of the top minds in our network. If you’d like to submit a question for us to tackle send it to <[email protected]>.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Question: Why did NATO intervene in Libya, and not in Syria?

Karim Bitar, analyst at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS):

The NATO intervention in Libya was not a walk in the park. Though [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi’s army was amateurish compared to [Bashar al-Assad’s] Syrian Army, it took six months for NATO to oust him and there was a lot of collateral damage. The Syrian Army has much more serious capabilities, first and foremost because of the Russian position. Vladimir Putin has decided to draw a line in sand, and he has been ready to use his veto power at the UN and his capabilities on the ground. Intervention would really make relations with Russia a very serious problem for the United States and most Western countries. Iran would also be up in arms. So it would rapidly become a major regional and international conflict.

Syria is extremely different than Libya in terms of ethnic and sectarian heterogeneity. Libya is extremely homogenous – over 90 percent its population are Sunni Arab. Syria’s sectarian makeup renders intervention much more difficult. It is also not enough [just] for Assad to fall – he has a constituency that might continue to fight even when he’s ousted.

The Obama administration is not comfortable being directly involved but has clearly given the green light to Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to intervene. The U.S. has confirmed it has intelligence agents on the Turkish and Jordanian borders to establish a cartology of fighters and ideology of each group. And there is very close cooperation between US intelligence and Saudi and Qatari intelligence. The U.S. is not as absent as one might think, but Obama prefers to work through covert operations and regional allies. The problem is they have their own agenda and tend to support some radical elements – Turkey and Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood while Saudi Arabia backs Salafi groups.

Unless there is a massive resort to chemical weapons on the part of Assad, NATO intervention is not on the table. I doubt they even have contingency plans. At one point, the head of NATO said he was not even thinking about Syria.

Aram Nerguizian, analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):

I agree with [Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff] Martin Dempsey. This is the most complex situation that any military planner can imagine. Put together the Lebanese, Iraqi and Algerian civil wars; a country of 21 million people bordered by all countries in the region that matter; add in SCUDs and chemical weapons… and there is no way even the most sophisticated and well-organized intelligence apparatus can decisively do anything. The question isn’t whether or not NATO can act –any country with air power can act. But producing a desired outcome cannot be guaranteed.

Syria is a country that has a lot of echoes of Iraq for NATO. For the old generation, it harkens back to a multinational force in Lebanon, when the Europeans and the U.S. exposed themselves in a conflict in which regional and international dynamics were at play. If NATO responds by sending more troops and adds more weapons, they are just setting themselves up for the next insurgency. When military planners weigh the pros and cons they don’t see a military solution to what they see as a political problem.

There are no international red lines, but there are regional red lines: spillover into Iraq, Turkey or Israel; or the proliferation of high quality weapons to Hezbollah. Countries like Israel will act unilaterally under certain conditions. Turkey’s equivalent was the deployment of NATO Patriots missiles on its border with Syria. The US red lines have very little to do with Syria. If a group with alleged ties to Al Qaeda starts targeting US allies, this could result in targeted strikes against jihadi groups.

The decision that needs to be made is whether you are providing military aid to pick a winner. Or, are you increasing pressure on Assad to bring him to the table? No one in their right mind in the U.S. that thinks that there is a horse you can back and win this. Folks in the US military establishment and civilian government still have an underlying preference for a political outcome that involves the Assad regime and the opposition. It will be one of those dances that might go on for a while.

Fabrice Balanche, director of the French Mediterranean and Middle East research center (GREMMO):

In Libya, NATO obtained a ceasefire from the United Nations after the abstention of Russia. The Gaddafi regime relied on mercenaries and was isolated diplomatically. Victory was easy. In Syria, we have seen a double veto by Russia and China three times. The Assad regime is firmly anchored by part of the population, particularly the Alawite minority. It is not isolated diplomatically. The geography of Syria is also different: there are densely populated zones where civilian casualties cannot be avoided by aerial strikes, whereas in Libya it was possible to target military positions in the desert. After the intervention in Libya, French and British forces were exhausted, and another military adventure within two years was going to be impossible. [At that time] the U.S. entered its campaign season, so it was not the right moment.

A Turkish intervention could happen towards the end of the conflict in limited areas under the pretext of protecting the Turkmen minority. Currently, you already have foreign intervention by unofficial armed groups: Hezbollah on one side and jihadists on the other. 

The red line for intervention would be if chemical weapons were used in massive quantities or if a major massacre was carried out on the scale of the one in Hama in 1982. This would not necessarily mean immediate intervention, but the halt of arms supplies by Russia and the authorization of Western air strikes on strategic objectives for the rebels to advance.


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