Helping Libya, Helping Syria

The last time Washington tried this, it didn't go so well.

The Obama administration’s decision to increase aid to the Syrian rebels, including now providing military aid, indicates that the United States is fast becoming a participant in Syria’s civil war. What is so worrisome about that trend is how much U.S. policy is evolving along lines similar to the earlier U.S.-led intervention in Libya. Before Washington goes down that path, it would be wise for officials to take a closer look at how the Libyan mission has turned out. That would be a sobering exercise, for post-Qaddafi Libya is hardly a model that any sensible policy maker should wish to repeat.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi both deservedly acquired reputations as appallingly brutal rulers. Even if the current allegations that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons ultimately prove unfounded, there is no question that government forces repeatedly have used conventional munitions against various targets with little regard for the impact on innocent civilians.

But as in the case of Libya, the insurgents in Syria are a motley coalition ranging from pragmatic, democratic reformers to radical Islamists closely allied with Al Qaeda. U.S. officials, as well as such outspoken congressional advocates of aiding the rebels, such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, display supreme arrogance when they assume that Washington can direct aid to the former while keeping funds and weapons out of the hands of the latter faction. As Senator Rand Paul and other critics of assisting the rebels point out, Washington could end up strengthening terrorist elements that wish to wreak havoc on the United States.

The victorious revolutionaries in Libya, which the United States and its NATO allies assisted so decisively, rather quickly fragmented into assorted armed militias, many of whom are anything but tolerant democrats. One hardline militia in Benghazi, Ansar al-Shariah, is widely believed to have orchestrated the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate. Fighting between other militias has turned Libya into a chaotic, dysfunctional state reminiscent of Lebanon during the 1970s and early 1980s, or Afghanistan in the years immediately following the withdrawal of Soviet forces.

Indeed, the Libyan state shows multiple, worrisome signs of fragmentation. Tribal clashes in the southern part of the country in February 2012 that resulted in the deaths of more than fifty civilians and caused hundreds more to flee the area were an early sign of the underlying instability. In early June 2013, the leader of the oil-rich province of Cyrenaica declared it a self-governing region, and other eastern provinces may seek to follow suit. There certainly is not an abundance of respect on the part of such factions for the national government in Tripoli or for the Libyan army. On June 15, hundreds of gunmen (apparently militia members) fired on soldiers of the First Infantry Brigade in Benghazi, killing six, wounding eleven, and forcing the remainder to withdraw from several bases in the area.

Libya is more a tribal tapestry than a modern nation state in the Western sense of the term, and NATO’s military aid to insurgent forces helped that tapestry begin to unravel. It was no coincidence that the revolution that overthrew Qaddafi originated in Benghazi and was heavily dominated by tribes from the eastern part of the country. All previous rebellions against his rule also began in the east. Conversely, Qaddafi’s political power base relied on support from the western tribes. That also was the portion of the country that fell last to the insurgents. The southern tribes traditionally conducted a wary, balancing strategy, trying to avoid an overcommitment either to Qaddafi and his western tribal allies or to his eastern adversaries.

In a similar fashion, Syria is more an amalgam of ethnic and religious groups than a state with a strong national identity. Syria’s population is divided among Sunni Arabs (about 60 percent of population), Christians (about 10-12 percent), Alawites, a Shiite offshoot, (also about 10-12 percent) Druze (about 6 percent) and various, mostly Sunni, ethnic minorities, primarily Kurds and Armenians. The Alawite Assad family has based its power for more than four decades on the solid loyalty of its religious bloc in a loose alliance with Christians, Druze and sometimes with one or more of the other smaller, ethnic groups. What we see today is a largely Sunni Arab bid to overthrow that “coalition of minorities” regime.

Helping to oust Bashar al-Assad may be morally appealing to human-rights activists in the United States and elsewhere in the West, but we need to beware of unintended consequences. If the aftermath is a turbulent, unstable Syria, with a new government heavily influenced by radical Islamist elements, or a Syria fragmenting into ethno-religious ministates, we are not going to like the outcome. Unfortunately, as we have seen in Libya, one of those scenarios is quite probable in countries that lack national cohesion. And as in the case of Libya, the intellectual architects of such a policy fiasco will likely develop amnesia and avoid taking responsibility for their dubious handiwork.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The National Interest, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.