Syrian protesters have been emboldened and empowered by Moammar Gadhafi’s death, stepping up their protests against the Assad regime while flashing signs asking for NATO to intervene as it did in Libya. And yet they and the Syrian opposition, which has asked for drones and aid to be sent in, have seen no real response to their calls for foreign protection and support. Why? In large part, the answer is tactical, not political.
First, we must consider the geographic differences between the two countries. Much of Libya’s population resides along the northern coast with its relatively flat coastal plains. There are few mountain ranges to hide in or to complicate bombing strategies. (Also, NATO forces were able to fly sorties from nearby European bases.) Syria’s population, by contrast, is tucked in or alongside mountainous terrain, complicating any tactical strategy. Air power could be effective, although it would come with higher costs, as we have seen in Afghanistan.
Libya is also less densely populated when compared with Syria’s cities, where much of the resistance has taken place. Urban centres such as Homs, Hama, Rastan and Idlib present a set of challenges for intervenors looking to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage. As for the sheer size of Syria’s population — 22.5 million to Libya’s 6.6 million – it adds a related challenge: balance of forces.
Syria’s military is more than eight times what Col. Gadhafi’s was. Raw numbers show Syria’s airpower twice the strength of Libya’s former air force. President Bashar al-Assad has nine times the number of operable tanks, almost four times the amount of land weapons and three times the amount of towed artillery. There is, frankly, much more to contend with in terms of manpower and military capability.
This is not to say that a NATO-led invasion could not face the Syrian forces and deal them a potentially crushing blow. But it would come with significantly higher costs. Indeed, it is estimated that only about 40 per cent of Syrians oppose the Assad regime. Thus any intervening force would contend, possibly, with 60 per cent of the population viewing such an intervention as an act of aggression. That is, 13.5 million Syrians would oppose the foreign military campaign – twice the number of all Libyans combined.
Yet, the crucial difference between the decision to intervene in Libya and merely expressing diplomatic disapproval over Syria is that there is no identifiable rebel group occupying and controlling territory. The politics in Damascus are quite different. The “on the ground” protest groups, the Local Co-ordination Committees, are leaderless and anonymous, with most members forced into hiding. Opposition within Syria is understandably timid, and they have shied away from anything more than declaratory statements. The newly formed Syrian National Council is divided among liberals, Islamists and secularists across the globe. There is no clear opposition force and protesters do not, under international law, have the status of belligerents – which would make further violence done to them a war crime under the International Criminal Court.
In contrast, Libya’s rebel army was able to gather support and maintain control in the second-largest city of Benghazi, prompting Col. Gadhafi to use air power against the rebels and their supporters. This move by Col. Gadhafi is what ultimately pushed NATO to impose a no-fly zone. Syria’s President has not used air strikes against his own people. Instead, he has pursued a campaign of violence, coercion and threats to intimidate the opposition. It’s estimated that more than 3,000 protesters have been killed. While this is a clear violation of human rights, it would be very difficult to end it without putting boots on the ground. And this would be tactically undesirable since few foreign powers could justify such action to their own constituencies, especially given the likelihood that body bags would start arriving back home.
A final note on tactics: Legitimacy is seen as a trump card in any offensive campaign.
In the case of Libya, Col. Gadhafi’s statements, actions and past behaviour generated a very quick response from the international community. Not only did the UN Security Council agree to impose a no-fly zone to protect the rebels, it also voted to recommend a case of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity to The Hague. This dual action of creating a legal mandate and recommending prosecution for violation of international law gave NATO a mantle of legitimacy.
Unlike Libya, Syria can’t gain this same status. Unless Mr. al-Assad commits, with clear evidence, crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statutes, the ICC has no hope of jurisdiction. This is due to the fact that Syria is not a signatory to the ICC. The only other available option is for the Security Council to recommend action against the Assad regime. And this is highly unlikely given its performance earlier this month with a failed vote to impose even targeted sanctions on Syria.
Unless Western powers, and not a ragtag group of rebels, are prepared for an on-the-ground invasion, we will continue to merely deplore what the Syrian regime is doing against its people. The principle of responsibility to protect was easily invoked in Libya’s case, but it is not so easily defended in Syria’s. Politics aside, intervening in Syria would be tactically challenging.
Heather Roff is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. Bessma Momani is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and an associate professor at the University of Waterloo.