August 31, 2011
Opinion: Don’t confuse Assad and Gadhafi
Think kiwis and kumquats. While it is true that they are both fruits, the similarities between them end right about there. So, too, the similarities between Libya and Syria.
There are no significant parallels that can be extrapolated from the overthrow in Libya to the unrest and potential for overthrow in Syria.
Yes, each country was ruled by a thugocracy. And each country has been run by a despot who is representative of only a very small segment of the population. Bashar Assad of Syria is an Alawite while the majority of the country is Sunni, and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi is from the tribe of Gadhaffiyah — one of the 140 tribes that compose Libya.
And that’s where the parallels end.
It’s the differences between the countries that are more glaring than their similarities. That’s what makes it almost ludicrous to even think about applying the lessons learned from Libya to the events that are still unfolding in Syria.
The first and most important difference between Libya and Syria is weaponry. The opposition in Syria has almost no weapons; the opposition in Libya is well armed. They are not well trained and their weapons are not of the highest caliber, but compared to the paltry supply the Syrians have, the Libyans boast impressive firepower.
The second and almost as important difference is military intelligence. The opposition in Libya benefited from the aid of British and French special forces and intelligence operatives and from intelligence gathering provided them by the United States, France and England. The opposition in Syria is on its own. In addition to having no weapons and training, they have no friends lending them military support or feeding them crucial intelligence.
While the world cheered on Libyan opposition forces, Syria’s opposition forces have few friends, no leverage and no power. They are cannon fodder for the Syrian military.
Col. Muammar Gadhafi was almost universally disdained — his rhetoric, his female bodyguards, his total disregard for human life, his active participation in acts of terror. Over the years, Gadhafi successfully offended and alienated so many people, not only in the West and but also in the Arabic world, that even Arabs wanted to oust him. He also considered himself to be an African rather than an Arab, and that also greatly upset his Arab-leader colleagues.
In the West there was a wall-to-wall coalition supporting the ousting of Gadhafi. That support spread to significant parts of the Arab leadership. Even the Arab League called for the fall of the Libyan dictator.
Assad, on the other hand, is a gentlemanly despot: educated, a physician, forced to obey his father’s orders and take up the mantle of thugocracy after the death of his brother. The beginnings of the uprising against Assad were almost totally ignored by the world media.
There has yet to be any orchestrated international protest or public outcry censoring or criticizing Assad. There are no Syrian groups in exile pushing for their freedom or lobbying for their cause on the airwaves. In contrast, there was an almost constant barrage of Libyans in exile begging for international assistance and keeping their cause alive in the media.
President Obama did just recently call for Assad to step down, but the United States still maintains diplomatic representation in Syria. The U.S. ambassador to Syria has not been recalled and neither have the ambassadors from most European countries, with the exception of Italy. And only a couple of Arab states followed Saudi Arabia’s lead when they yanked their ambassadors. The Arab League has just asked Syria to stop killing innocents, which is hardly an indictment of the heinous acts Assad is perpetrating and pales in comparison to the way in which they vilified Gadhafi.
The Arab League ousted Gadhafi and seated the Libyan opposition in his place.
The 140 different tribes in Libya are each fighting for autonomy. While there are family and tribal linkages in Syria, the greatest divisive force in that country is the religious divide. Sunnis constitute 74 percent, the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population; then come the Shiites at 12 percent; and then Assad and his fellow Alawites, a break-off from Shiia tradition, at 9 percent. Although Assad’s Alawite may be the minority religious tribe in Syria, they comprise a very significant and loyal part of the army.
There are only two viable ways for the Syrian revolt to succeed. The opposition needs either international intervention or for Sunni elements within the army to defect and join their cause. There are no other alternatives.
Unfortunately for the Syrian opposition, those are both long shots. Given the current international economic crunch, it is too risky for the West to take on another mission like the one they engaged in with Libya. Do not expect a no-fly zone in Syria like the one in Libya. And unless there is a serious incentive and worthwhile push, there will be no defections from the Syrian army.
Gadhafi has gone underground and may not turn up again. Assad remains in power, and he is not about to leave Damascus anytime soon. He is reaping the fruits of his and of his father’s brutal labor.
Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).