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Libya endgame: Lessons for Syria's protesters

Rebel advances in Tripoli could turn the tide for the Syrian opposition amid the brutal crackdown by President Assad – especially if protesters heed the lessons from Libya. Unity and organization are more powerful than NATO bombs and Western sanctions.

By Bilal Y. Saab / August 23, 2011


As the Libyan opposition's fight appears to be nearing a triumphant close, with rebels having taken over Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, the showdown between largely peaceful protesters and regime forces in Syria rages on and shows no signs of abating. But Mr. Qaddafi’s ouster could help turn the tide for the Syrian opposition – especially if it takes the lessons from Libya to heart.

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One would assume that the escalating pressure on Qaddafi’s regime would have been enough to shake Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and push him to stop the bloodbath against his own people. Forget about it. With his speech on Sunday (when all signs pointed to Qaddafi’s imminent downfall) in which he rebuffed Western calls to resign, Mr. Assad is now more defiant than ever. His message is unambiguous: Extensive international pressure notwithstanding, he is not going down without a fight.

The popular uprisings in Libya and Syria (and elsewhere in the Middle East) have similar root causes – decades-old authoritarian politics, harsh political repression, denial of freedoms, and bad economics – but they have taken different paths, which may lead them to very different ends.

Commentators and analysts have been quick to state that Assad’s days are numbered. That may be true. Facing international isolation of unprecedented scale and a growing protest movement at home that is determined to depose him, the ruler of Syria is in deep trouble. It may be only a matter of time before Assad falls, but we simply do not know how long it will take and how it will unfold.

External intervention and support for anti-government forces is undoubtedly the most important issue that separates the Libyan case from the Syrian one. Slaughtered by Qaddafi’s regime, Libyan protesters did not hesitate to ask for Western military intervention, which they ultimately got in the form of a NATO aerial campaign. Let’s be honest and clear, without NATO’s air strikes, the no-fly zone, and the sanctions against Qaddafi, the civil war in Libya would have dragged on even longer, and rebel victory would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve.

The majority of the protesters in Syria do not want Western military intervention. Their position is both courageous and rational, but it is not without costs and risks. With external military assistance (if the West sends arms or launches another NATO aerial campaign), they would be in a better position operationally to overthrow Assad, but their ability to govern their country in the future autonomously would be more limited (surely nothing is for free in international relations).

Without external military assistance, they are extremely vulnerable and at the mercy of Assad’s tanks and security forces, but if they pull his overthrow off, they will own their country’s future and put themselves in a position to better ward off future foreign meddling and interference. It is not an easy choice, but so far, the Syrian protesters have decided to go it alone, and one must understand and respect their remarkable position.


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