Losing Libya

‘Turning Syria over to rebel control would produce far-reaching benefits. The US and Europe must bring Bashar al-Assad to the Hague’

Global Governance Points East & West

When US President Barack Obama offered his rationale for supporting the UN-imposed no-fly zone over Libyan skies, he said: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi […] could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

To those who would, in coming days, criticise him for having stood idly by in the wake of repression elsewhere, he said: “It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.”

Obama’s Libya speech was a remarkable balancing act between the unsentimental view of national interest and the passionate impulse of humanitarian intervention. The President announced that America may intervene occasionally when the two intersect — but deliberately left it vague, so as not to prejudge future crises. He returned to his favoured theme of the “false choice” — the rhetorical straw man of two extremes, which enables him always to counsel a reasonable third way. But he did not set policy, especially at a time when across the Middle East national interest criss-crosses with humanitarian catastrophes. Nor did he elaborate much on other forms of intervention — after all, isn’t the choice between all-out war and standing idly by a false one?

The real question, as we witness turmoil engulf the entire region, is this, after all: how does one balance the nature of America’s interest against the costs and risks of intervention? One cannot expect America to launch military strikes everywhere and all the time — but could American pressure and leadership be brought to bear elsewhere, when national interest is at stake and carnage is a real prospect? 

Nowhere is this question more urgent than Syria — where a balance between interest and conscience, demands more than the perfunctory and inconsequential rhetoric that has so far characterised US (and indeed, European) reactions to Syria’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. 

Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad has already had many hundreds of peaceful protesters murdered and the body count is growing, daily. His armoured brigades entered the city of al-Dira’a, the epicentre of anti-government protests, after shelling the town for days. Other cities are suffering from the same fate. There are reports of    Iranian Revolutionary Guards participating in the repression. And the evidence of brutality is plain, on YouTube and elsewhere. Then Assad stirred up trouble with Israel on the Golan Heights.

Isn’t this, then, a situation where “the costs and risks of intervention” should not be “an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right”? This is not a call for Nato strikes against Syria. It is a call for an array of diplomatic actions that would serve both Western national interests and the dictates of conscience.

It is remarkable that Muammar Gaddafi gets what no other regional tyrant who is a sworn enemy of the West is getting. Consider this: Gaddafi gave up his military nuclear programme in 2004 — Bashar al-Assad did not; Gaddafi gave up support for international terrorism — Assad is still a main sponsor of terrorism; Gaddafi supported counter-radicalisation programmes for former al-Qaeda jihadis — Assad facilitated their transit into Iraq to go and fight Western armies and murder Iraqi civilians; Gaddafi improved relations with the West — Assad improved relations with Iran; Gaddafi turned over at least one perpetrator of the Lockerbie bombing to justice — Assad shielded the murderers of the late Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, from justice.

Finally, turning Libya over to rebel control has, at least so far, no discernible strategic benefit — Gaddafi was already our friend, sold us his oil and had willingly stopped all activities that constituted a strategic threat to the West since 2004. 

Turning Syria over, by contrast, would produce far-reaching benefits. Its patronage of Hizbollah and Hamas would in all likelihood come to an end; and so would its alliance with Iran. And if Iran lost its major ally and client in the region, its influence would be seriously curtailed.

Why then, cannot the US and Europe begin by recalling their ambassadors, suspending the EU Association Agreement with Syria, expanding asset freezes to the entire Assad family, initiating proceedings to bring Assad to The Hague, and stating, as President Obama did with Gaddafi: “Assad must go”?