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U.S.: Libya Intervention Unlikely to Be Repeated

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Aug 24 2011 (IPS) - As NATO-backed rebels continue efforts to secure Tripoli from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, analysts here are already debating whether the apparently successful uprising in Libya offers a precedent for future action elsewhere.

Most of the speculation is focusing on Syria, where the government of President Bashir al-Assad has defied international protests against its violent repression of largely peaceful popular demonstrations. Over the past five months, more than 2,000 people have been killed and more than 10,000 others detained as a result of the crackdown, according to the United Nations and human rights monitors.

Both the U.S. and the European Union (EU) called for the first time last week for Assad to step down and, as with Libya, Washington has also imposed sweeping economic sanctions, notably in the energy sector, against Assad’s regime which the EU is expected to replicate in the coming days.

Western nations also led the campaign to gain the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of Assad’s efforts earlier this month and persuaded the U.N. Human Rights Council this week to create a special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation in Syria – apparently with an eye to eventually preparing a case against key figures in the regime for referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

While all of these steps echo those taken by the West and some of its Arab allies against Gaddafi, however, most analysts here still discount the possibility that the U.S. or NATO will eventually intervene militarily against the regime as they did in Libya, where NATO’s liberal interpretation of a U.N.- sanctioned “no-fly zone” to protect innocent civilians and covert assistance and tactical advice to rebel forces played a decisive role in their apparent victory.

“I think what we saw in Libya was ‘sui generis’ in the sense that the international backing that was assembled was made possible only because Gaddafi was uniquely hated, including and especially by the Saudis and other Arab governments,” according to Chris Toensing, director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) and editor of the ‘Middle East Report’.

“He had no allies and had alienated all of his possible backers that could have stopped a coalition from being assembled,” he told IPS, noting that it was the Arab League that first called on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya in mid-March.

Indeed, Assad still enjoys the support of Iran and, albeit to a lesser and necessarily much more constrained extent, his immediate eastern neighbour, Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have become harshly critical of Assad – Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states recalled their ambassadors in Damascus earlier this month and have not yet joined the West in calling for Assad’s departure and are considered unlikely to do so. Even Israel, increasingly pre-occupied with insecurity along its border with Egypt, appears ambivalent about the Assad dynasty, which has effectively kept the peace in the Golan Heights for nearly 40 years.

“Change, in Israel’s view, is an unknown and therefore a frightening prospect,” wrote Uriel Heilman, managing editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), this week.

There are other major differences in the two situations that make military intervention unlikely, as noted by a number of commentators, not least the fact that Gaddafi’s opposition almost immediately took up arms and appealed for military aid, while the opposition in Syria has so far committed itself to non-violence, a fact noted explicitly by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland last week.

“So military action is not the preferred course of anyone – not the Syrian people, not the Arab or European or American members of the international community,” Nuland told reporters.

Moreover, Syria’s military is considered far more powerful than Libya’s which would make any military intervention against it – even if it were confined to enforcing a “no-fly zone” – far more risky.

“You are talking about a country with a real military machine, with a serious military capability, unlike Libya which is largely a façade,” Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told Agence France Presse. “The scale of military operations that would be required (would be much higher than in Libya) and present far more risks of civilian casualties and collateral damage.”

Indeed, the fact that, despite an increasingly aggressive aerial campaign and the active support of Special Forces advisers from Britain and France and of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives on the ground, it took five months to defeat Gaddafi, has been cited as another reason why western leaders are unlikely to back up their demands for Assad’s removal with military force.

“The conflict lasted much longer than originally expected; air power was important, but not decisive; the conflict was uniquely divisive within Europe and never enjoyed much support,” said Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I think the length and difficulty of NATO’s operation in Libya makes western military intervention in other countries that are experiencing democracy movements less likely, not more likely,” he added, noting also that the administration of President Barack Obama would be loathe to become embroiled in a fourth war in the Greater Middle East on the eve of an election.

Larger strategic calculations are also likely to discourage more military adventures in any event, according to analysts who point, among other things, to increased pressure on defence budgets arising from the increasingly difficult economic straits faced by the western powers.

This is an “alliance where defence outlays had begun to melt away long before the current economic catastrophe,” wrote Josef Joffe, the often-neo-conservative editor of Hamburg’s ‘Die Zeit’ newspaper on The New Republic’s website Wednesday. “NATO was pushed to its limit over Libya, and just barely avoided a public break-up. In the business of global order, the West is still the best, but it will take a rest for now.”

Moreover, Europe, where anti-immigrant sentiment is clearly on the rise, is in that respect less likely to consider Syria as important as Libya, which has historically been a key transit point for African immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. Libyan oil and gas exports are also far more significant than Syria’s.

Even if the Atlantic alliance emerged stronger and more confident from the Libya operation, its ever- broader interpretation of the Security Council mandate to protect civilians will likely encourage resistance from other current and emerging powers – notably Russia, China, India, Turkey, and Brazil – to a similar authorisation for Syria or any other country.

“I think the Libya experience will stiffen their backbones,” Toensing told IPS, citing Russia and China, the two non-NATO permanent Security Council members. “They can’t be happy about the precedent that’s been set.”

The U.S. and EU are circulating a draft resolution at the U.N. that would impose more sanctions on Syria, including an arms embargo.

None of this means there won’t be pressure from some quarters on Obama and other western leaders to take military action against Assad if the repression continues or intensifies, particularly now that they have called for his ouster, thus putting their own credibility on the line.

While no major Republican presidential candidate has urged taking military action in Syria, almost all of them last week criticised Obama for not calling for Assad’s ouster earlier.

In addition, neo-conservatives – who have led the campaign to impose sweeping economic sanctions on the regime – have insisted that Washington back up its demands for Assad’s departure with the threat of using force.

“Their strategy for angling the U.S. toward making a (military) commitment in the future is economic sanctions,” according to Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma and publisher of ‘’. “Should Syrians start to starve, as they surely would if real sanctions are imposed, the moral argument for intervention and military escalation would improve.”

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