DAMASCUS - The dramatic developments in Libya have raised eyebrows throughout
the Arab world and within the international community. In the early hours of
August 21, Libyan rebels finally entered the capital, Tripoli, with the aim of
arresting - or killing - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Common sense dictates
that Gaddafi's days are numbered; he will be gone, one way or another, within
Gaddafi has lasted five months of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
strikes. Had he not shot at his own people when young Libyans rebelled on
February 17, then perhaps his fortunes would have played out better. He might
have been allowed a dignified exit, for example, and offered an exile in Italy.
He is now either going to be dragged in chains to the International
Criminal Court or might commit suicide before angry Libyans get hold of him,
and tear him apart.
In typical fashion, Gaddafi spoke to what remains of his supporters on Sunday,
accusing his enemies of being "traitors" who want to "give" Libya to the
French. He shouted, "March forward! March forward! March forward! They have
lost. Now is [their ending]." His bravado echoed those of Saddam Hussein on the
eve of Iraq's 1991 war with the United States, when he said, "We and the
Americans are at the tip of the pyramid - and we will see who falls off first!"
History remembers only too well who fell first, with the dictator meeting his
end in a hangman's noose.
Many would have expected Gaddafi's collapse to spark happiness in the angry
Syrian street, where rebels have been trying to topple the Damascus regime
since mid-March, with an estimated more than 2,000 people having been killed.
On the contrary, many Syrians were clearly worried as news of the march into
Tripoli reached Damascus.
True, they hate Gaddafi and long to see his end - but as of Sunday morning it
was no longer Gaddafi that mattered to Libya-observers inside Syria. Rather, it
was Syria itself. Having succeeded in Libya, NATO might now rethink its options
on Syria, where pressure has been growing from the international community for
President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Internationalizing the Syrian crisis militarily has to date not been on many
minds in Syria - until now. Few on the Syrian street and within the opposition
have contemplated any kind of foreign intervention, claiming that political
escalation and sanctions headed by the Barack Obama White House is one thing,
an armed attack by NATO quite another.
For weeks, people have been saying: "No matter what happens, NATO will never
strike Syria." That made sense as long as the mess in Libya dragged on -
Western taxpayers were fed up with fighting a war that did not concern them and
that was failing to achieve its end objective: getting rid of Colonel Gaddafi.
The London Financial Times recently reported on a Pentagon memo in June saying
that the cost of US involvement in the Libya war was a staggering US$2 million
a day. Libya was supposed to pay for the war effort from its oil - once NATO
operations ended by getting rid of Gaddafi.
Before last weekend, the Italians sent their aircraft back to Italy while
Britain withdrew its spy plane. Canada was preparing to pull out, the Danes
were complaining and Norwegians had dropped out entirely - mainly due to
All of this became history on Sunday when Libyan rebels entered the capital and
captured three of Gaddafi's sons, including Saif al-Islam, according to the
rebel National Transitional Council.
Now world leaders might be thinking that the military campaign was not as bad
as it seemed, and although Syria doesn't have the same wealth to pay off a war
effort as is the case with Libya, an operation could be financed by some Gulf
countries, for example, if its end results were 100% guaranteed.
Earlier this month, Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told the popular
Russian newspaper Izvestia that the organization was planning a military
campaign against Syria, similar to the Libyan one. This was "leaked" shortly
after international pressure mounted on Damascus when the Saudi, Tunisian,
Swiss, Bahraini and Kuwaiti ambassadors were withdrawn from the Syrian capital.
Then came a wild story in Debka, a Jerusalem-based "Israeli military
intelligence" website, saying that NATO was planning to arm Syrian rebels ahead
of an upcoming attack on Syria itself. According to the controversial report,
large caches of weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, mortar
bombs, and heavy machine guns, will be sent to Syrian cities, all escorted by
the Turkish army, for use against the Syrian government.
Both the Russian diplomat's words and those of Debka are hard to believe - for
now. Depending on how events unfold in Libya over the next few days, the NATO
option might become closer to reality than ever before - at least in the minds
of some world leaders.
The fundamental difference between Syria and Libya, however, is that unlike
Libya - where rebels called for foreign intervention from day one - many
Syrians do not want a NATO attack as it is feared this would only strengthen
the state and rally ordinary Syrians around the government.
Military intervention would create unbelievable damage to the economy,
infrastructure and morale. Additionally, Syria is not Libyan wasteland; a
country that is underdeveloped, plain and empty. To state the obvious, although
very large in territory (the 17th largest in the world) Libya has only 6
million people divided mainly between Benghazi and Tripoli, whereas Syria is
packed with 22 million people.
The slightest "mistake" as the many committed by NATO in Libya would be
catastrophic for the people of Syria. In addition to being more ethnically and
religiously diverse, its terrain is filled with historical monuments, some
dating back 5,000 years, schools, crowded residential districts and large
Its territory has not been under attack since 1945, when the French army
bombarded its capital during the colonial era. Simply put, its people are not
used to war, unlike the Libyans - and more importantly - they don't want it to
The Syrians feel that they can solve their problems on their own, whether by
democratizing the regime, keeping it as it is, or bringing it down completely.
Now, though, outside forces might not agree.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief
of Forward Magazine in Syria.
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