Syrian pro-democracy activists facing the regime’s ruthless use of violence have called for western warplanes to help them. In Libya, thousands of air strikes destroyed Libya’s tanks, gave an out-gunned, rag-tag, rebel army a chance to fight and helped topple despot Moammar Gadhafi.
NATO’s one-sided “protection” of civilians transformed a battered uprising into the successful ouster of another Arab dictator. Not surprisingly, that ‘success’ has produced calls for an encore in Syria, where more than three thousand – mostly unarmed – protesters have been gunned down since March by brutal and unrestrained use of heavy weapons against pro-democracy crowds.
But what worked in Libya has little chance of a repeat in Syria. Here are three reasons why NATO warplanes won’t be protecting Syrians and attacking Bashar Assad’s armoured columns.
>> The diplomatic problem of legitimacy
Reviled despot Col. Gadhafi had few friends and no regional strategic significance. In sharp contrast, Syria has close ties to Iran and lies at the heart of the Middle East. Before the bombing began in Libya, a UN Security Council mandate was needed to ‘legitimize’ the war.
Following the condemnation of the Arab League, even Russia and China agreed to NATO military action in Libya. But despite the cries of Syrian protesters, both Moscow and Beijing remain opposed to western military interference in the Middle East. Both have close and complex ties to Syria and, more importantly, to Syria’s much larger neighbour and patron, Iran. And both are veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
>> The military difficulties of geography and power
Oil-rich Libya, with most of its population in coastal cities stretching along the Mediterranean had an ill-equipped military and a hard core of mercenaries mainly employed for domestic oppression. Syria’s far larger, more modern air force and array of anti-aircraft missiles would pose a far tougher opponent. While a sustained bombing campaign would overwhelm Syria’s military might, the risk of losses would be far higher. Syria's location, size and military make it a far tougher target.
To attack Libya, NATO’s warplanes, including Canada’s, could fly from Italian bases in Sicily, a short hop across the southern Mediterranean, to targets strung along the Libyan coast. Small French and British aircraft carriers served as platforms for helicopter gunships. Constant air patrols could be overhead with quick runs offshore for refueling from air tankers.
From a military standpoint, it was a relatively easy, low-cost, low-risk operation. But to attack Syria would be far more complicated. Turkey would be unlikely to allow air strikes from its bases. A pair of British bases in Cyprus would be insufficient. That would mean at least one, and likely two, huge U.S. aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean. In turn that would make any outside military intervention look far more like another “American” war against a Muslim nation.
>> The dangers of a quagmire
Libya has been called the first big success of President Barack Obama's ‘low-profile’ doctrine. While a massive barrage of American cruise missiles opened the war by destroying key Libyan targets, the ongoing and important U.S. involvement was largely behind the scenes. French, British and Canadian warplanes flew most of the strike missions.
Syria’s ruthless President Assad may eventually be deposed. But he understands that the West faces a far graver situation if it tries to repeat its Libyan intervention.
“Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen,” he said in a rare interview this week. “The history is different. The politics is different. Syria is the hub in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want so see another Afghanistan?”
Or, he might have added, a wider war embroiling Israel and Iran.