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.

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.

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.

While the balance of forces currently tilts heavily in Assad’s favor, Qaddafi’s downfall might just be the necessary factor that will embolden the protesters and offer them a sizeable advantage. This is not naïve or farfetched. After all, it was the plight of Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and the symbolism of his fate that sparked all the revolutions across the Middle East.

The images of the rebels in Libya liberating their country (as it seems they are close to doing) and chanting songs of freedom, like their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts before them, will no doubt be another powerful inspiration and morale booster for the Syrian people.

Qaddafi’s departure will also make it possible for the international community to devote more attention and energy to Syria and come up with more creative and coordinated policies to assist the Syrian people, short of bombing Damascus or sending arms. That all eyes are currently on Assad is certainly bad news for the dictator.

Yet whatever the international community devises, the Syrian protest movement must do a better job organizing and convincing the world that it is more or less ready to take over once Assad falls. For that, the protesters need to create a truly united and inclusive political front (the National Council which the Syrian opposition formed today in Istanbul is a good first step, but it remains leaderless and still needs to come up with a tangible platform that goes beyond the demands for freedom and regime change).

Interviews with Arab intellectuals and ordinary citizens broadcast on satellite TV channels across the Arab world tell us that many Arabs believe that the rebels in Libya have made a mistake in asking for Western (“colonial”) military intervention. But the rebels' salvation is that they quickly came together and formed a transitional council, gaining world recognition and persuading major powers that the alternative to Qaddafi is indeed viable.

Right now, the West, and especially Syria’s neighbors, are concerned that Assad’s departure will lead to chaos and perhaps even sectarian, civil war that could spill over to other parts of the region.

Nobody and no amount of external assistance can help the Syrian protesters overcome their differences (as a Lebanese citizen, trust me on this one). But the sooner they speak with one voice, organize their ranks from within, and show the world that they are a mature and capable group able to turn Syria into a responsible democracy, the closer they will be to fulfilling their dream of toppling the Assad regime.

Their unity and organization are indeed more powerful than NATO’s bombs and more effective than the West’s sanctions. The lessons of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia are clear: With unity comes historic opportunity.

Bilal Y. Saab is a visiting fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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