Six Reasons Libya Can't Be Replicated

Arguments that Iran or Syria can be the "next Libya" are overly simplistic. 

Libyan rebels depended on Western military intervention to help them overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Could this model be used again, perhaps in Syria or Iran? Here are six reasons why the Libyan experience and a potential new intervention in the Middle East are very different:

1. The United States needs to avoid another military campaign in the region.

In Libya, Washington’s position was to limit its military involvement because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan and budget limitations. These basic constraints have not changed for the United States, which is reluctant to be entangled in another campaign. Going beyond containing Iran might also have larger repercussions, particularly terror attacks by Tehran or its proxies. Iran could also exploit its growing influence in Iraq as a springboard to covert operations designed to destabilize two of its neighbors, U.S. allies Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

2. A war with Syria or Iran is much more likely to create a regional conflagration.

Syria, in contrast with Libya, could start a war with Israel. This would thwart any attempt on the part of Arab states and Turkey to support Western powers in a military attack against Syria. Turkey and Arab states could not afford to be seen as collaborating with Israel in a war against another Arab state. Syria and Iran could also retaliate by encouraging and assisting terror organizations to attack Western targets in the Middle East—and also in mainland Europe and the United States.

3. Russia and China have learned from the experience in Libya.

Russia and China went along with the UN resolution 1973 against Libya, but they seem to regret it. They blocked a UN move against Syria to prevent a process leading to an attack on the Syrian regime like the one that happened in Libya. Perhaps an official call from the Syrian opposition—and particularly the Arab League—for military intervention against Syria could change the policy of Russia or China. In any case, it would pave the way for a Western strike and at least increase the pressure on Syria.

4. Iran not only might stop its own oil exports but also could hinder Saudi production.

The war in Libya did not cause a serious problem for the oil market, but Saudi Arabia is much more important than Libya as an oil exporter. Iran, in a time of war, could attack the Saudi oil infrastructure with hundreds of missiles that would not only prevent the kingdom from increasing production of oil to compensate for the loss of Iranian oil but also hinder Saudi Arabia’s ability to meet current demands. Such an event would bring turmoil to the oil market and could be exacerbated if Iran blocks or at least disrupts oil traffic in the Persian Gulf, particularly in the Strait of Hormuz.

5. Turkey is furious about the Syrian crackdown.

Libya did not have to be worried about its powerful neighbor, Egypt, which did almost nothing to help the Libyan people. But Syria should be concerned about Turkey. Yet it’s not clear that Turkey would confront Syria militarily. Right now, Turkey backs the Syrian opposition. In response, Syria could openly support the Kurdish mutiny in Turkey. That might be considered an act of war against Ankara. Turkey is part of NATO, and the other states in the alliance would have to help it. For most if not all of them, it would be an unwelcome constraint.

6. The Iranian and Syrian militaries are much stronger than the Libyan forces.

Western powers hesitated before intervening in Libya. When they did engage, it was mostly from the air in order to avoid absorbing casualties. They would need to be more careful in case of a Western campaign in Syria—and even more so in Iran.

Neutralizing the Syrian and Iranian militaries as effective combat forces might take longer, require more resources and demand many casualties, particularly in case of land battles. But the militaries in Syria and Iran would eventually lose control of their skies and be exposed to bombardments, particularly in open areas. Still, as in Libya, a Western air offensive would not be enough to bring victory in Syria. The rebels must be organized and powerful enough to win the war on the ground.

The Bottom Line

Some might consider Libya as a kind of model for a Western military intervention, one that could be deployed in a similar situation in Syria or Iran. Yet these political and military constraints show that it would be much more difficult to implement.

Ehud Eilam, PhD, is a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and a contributor to IsraelDefense magazine.

Image: alhussainy