Syria isn't Libya: Obama must consider bolder intervention

Before the calls come to commit US forces to an intervention in Syria, the Obama administration must take a hard look at what happened in Libya. The politically safe, low-risk, low-reward intervention in Libya shouldn’t be repeated in Syria.

The Arab League’s recent actions, first to revoke Syria’s membership, then to impose strong economic sanctions, indicate just how passionate the organization is about ending the violence in Syria. These actions also telegraph the league’s next move: asking for military intervention in Syria.

Before the calls to commit US forces to an intervention in Syria come, now is the time for the Obama administration to take a hard look at what happened in Libya and ask if the outcome was what it truly desired. The laissez-faire but safe intervention in Libya was a classic example of low risk and low reward. It should not be repeated in Syria.

Although the administration’s rhetoric, for domestic political consumption, proclaims victory in Libya (and officials breathlessly add, “without a single American death”), reality is much more complicated. Time will tell if the Obama gamble in Libya will pay off, but the stakes in Syria are infinitely higher.

The instability and lawlessness in Libya over the past several months are cause for concern, and the future of a Libya post-Qaddafi is uncertain at best and at worst a threat to the region’s stability. European Union diplomats are taking a lead role in assisting the new regime as the United States continues to “lead from behind.” 

No matter what the uncertainties of the future, the current reality is that loose weapons from Libya have already bolstered the substantial black market in the region, a market that Al Qaeda affiliates trade in with regularity.

Luckily, Libya had mostly dismantled its weapons-of-mass-destruction program, and in August of this year State department spokesman Victoria Nuland expressed confidence that the few remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons were secured prior to the regime’s collapse (based on communication with the Transitional National Council and US intelligence sources.)

Syria is a different story. It is one of six nations that has refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans the development and stockpiling of such weapons. And US intelligence agencies believe that it has a significant stockpile of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them, according to a Wall Street Journal report in August of this year.

As the situation in Syria becomes more unstable, America can ill afford to see those weapons hit the black market, not to mention the vast arsenal of the Syrian army that, much like Saddam Hussein’s army, has weapons spread from one end of the country to the other. If Syria loses control of its national arsenal, the result could be disastrous for the region.

Other factors make a Syrian crisis much more dangerous than Libya.

First, Al Qaeda has deep connections in Syria that were developed and exploited to smuggle foreign fighters, money, and explosives into Iraq at the height of the Iraq War. Though mostly dormant, those cells could become active. The could again export violence into Iraq where the coming absence of US forces already threatens to rekindle the Sunni-Shia civil war that raged from 2005-2007. Add to that potential Sunni-Shia violence in Syria, and it is not far-fetched to imagine a conflagration that could engulf major portions of the region.

Second, the ties between Iran and Syria, though showing increasing signs of strain, are still strong. It’s fair to say that Iran will not let its greatest Arab ally fall without a fight. How would the Iranian regime react to a destabilized Syria? Would it react differently if Iraq were dragged back into levels of widespread, extreme sectarian violence?

The answers to both questions are difficult to assess. But one thing isn’t difficult to see: Iran has lost much of its fear of the US. As long as Iran perceives the US as war-weary, weak, and unlikely to interfere, little will prevent it from taking significant covert action to support the Assad regime in Syria.

The chain of events that could result from a destabilized, chaotic Syria is mind-boggling. Suffice it to say that Syria is not another Libya. The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about whether “leading from behind” will be sufficient in wake of the violence now raging in Syria.

Yesterday, the Obama administration took several actions that might indicate it is doing just that – seriously contemplating its involvement. The administration ordered Ambassador Robert Ford to return to Damascus even while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Geneva with members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a group that claims to represent opposition activists.

US officials need to proceed cautiously, of course, but now is also the time for audacious actions. First, US diplomats, who have worked for years to assist Iraq in its transition to democracy, can apply their lessons learned in Iraq to assist a post-Assad Syria move toward liberal democracy. To do so, however, they must be present when the regime falls.

Now is the time to not merely return the US ambassador to Syria, but to get a transitional team of diplomats into Damascus who can immediately reach out to SNC officials when Assad falls. The move is risky in light of the increasing violence, but the pay-off can be substantial in terms of US access to a potential new Syrian regime.

Second, Washington should not let the fear of casualties prevent it from providing boot-on-the-ground advisers and mentors to the Syrian opposition fighters who now call themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA). If (or when) the call for military intervention comes from the Arab League, America needs to take a bigger risk than it did in Libya in order to have a bigger impact with the FSA.

Last, US diplomats, military leaders, and potentially intelligence officers have links to tribal sheiks in Syria (links America built during the Sunni Awakening in Iraq). The US can now exploit (either overtly or covertly) those connections to influence the future of Syria.

In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama promised a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect…” that recognizes “common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

In Libya, America failed to fully demonstrate its commitment to those principles. It must not lose the opportunity in Syria.

Lt. Col. Michael E. Silverman, US Army (ret) served in the military for over 25 years including three combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of “Awakening Victory: How Iraqi Tribes and American Troops Reclaimed al Anbar Province and Defeated al Qaeda In Iraq,” which was released in October 2011. He currently serves as a consultant to the US Army and is recognized as an expert on counterinsurgency.

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