Lesley Riddoch: Syria does not fit Libya template

Syrian rebels man a check-point in the north of northern Syria's Idlib region. Picture: Getty
Syrian rebels man a check-point in the north of northern Syria's Idlib region. Picture: Getty
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DAVID Cameron must not make the mistake of thinking one military intervention is just like another, writes Lesley Riddoch

Play it again Sam – how could Cameron and Clegg not hear that plaintive tune? As the Prime Minister and his Lib Dem deputy stood shoulder to shoulder last week, exhorting MPs to back military action against Syria’s President Assad, the mood music of pre-invasion Iraq was clearly audible to everyone else.

Once again, weapons inspectors had not been able to finish their job. Once again, the Security Council of the United Nations had not been able to meet or vote. Once again, terrible hypocrisy lay at the heart of our own government’s tough stance -- British firms had been authorised to sell components of chemical warfare just months earlier in Syria – perhaps the very chemicals used in the Damascus gas attack. Once again, undue haste in Britain suggested a covert American timetable. Once again, Tony Blair muscled in.

But, once again, proponents of military action could not explain how a one-off strike would help, how ‘boots on the ground’ could be avoided, or what success in Syria would finally achieve.

How could David Cameron fail to spot the dread similarities? Perhaps because his eyes were fixed on a different foreign policy experience entirely – Libya.

Clearly the Prime Minister thought Britain’s more recent and successful intervention in 2011 would form the template for public and political decision-making on Syria and resonate far more strongly in public consciousness than decade-old memories of the war in Iraq. He was profoundly wrong.

President Obama looks set to make the same mistake with Congress. Syria is not like Libya. First of all, Syria does not stand alone. Russia and China did not block UN action on Libya and the Arab League supported it.

So when President Obama announced military action in March 2011, he could say: “In this effort, the United States is acting with a broad coalition.” Today, it’s very different.Nobody but Robert Mugabe stood by the Gaddafi regime. But the Arab League does not support an air strike on Assad and Syria has Iran, Russia, China, Hezbollah and even Britain’s erstwhile ally Iraq by its side – Iraq’s President Maliki spent many years as an exile in Syria during Saddam’s reign and banned foreign powers from using Iraq as a base for land or air attacks on Assad last week.

But Syria does not just have supporters, it also has proxy status for a far more worrying conflict between the US and Iran – and even Russia.

Syrian ports give Tehran and Moscow access to the Mediterranean, while America’s Middle East ally, Israel, also borders Syria. So, from a global perspective, the situation in Syria is far more complicated than it ever was in Libya.

Second, Syria is internally complex. The UK and USA were able to recognise one rebel government in Libya, where almost all the population are Sunni Arabs. Syria too has a Sunni majority but there are also substantial populations of Kurds, Christians and Druze – all fearful that a change from minority Alawite to Sunni majority rule will undermine them. And some of the most powerful rebel groups are linked to al-Qaeda.

Many different religious groups with deep sectarian and ethnic divisions coexist uneasily in Syria under rule by a single extended family in a police state. Indeed, a commentator recently observed: “Assad is as coup-proof as Saddam ever was.”

Thirdly, the Syrian economy is falling apart. According to Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma: “Libya is a country of six million people, and it can pay its own bills because it is the largest oil producer in Africa. Syria’s a country of 24 million, almost a third of whom have been displaced. It does not have the massive oil reserves of its neighbours. That means reconstruction would be much very expensive.

“Syria is a destroyed country without any means of income today. The economy has collapsed by more than half and this winter is going to be a terrible one. Only half as many crops were planted in Syria this summer due to insecurity, lack of fuel and lack of fertiliser.”

So, in very many ways, Syria is not like Libya. And that leads to the biggest public worry that David Cameron unaccountably underestimated. The quagmire factor.

The Libyan engagement was such a relatively short and casualty-free intervention it didn’t have time to enter the British psyche. A year after the overthrow of Gaddafi, the American Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in Benghazi, and this weekend the Libyan oil minister, Abdelbari al-Arusi, has announced that strikes and shutdowns by rebel militia are costing the country $100million a day and warned that soon “Libya will plunge into darkness”.

None of that undermines the case for intervention in 2011. But it demonstrates that military action by external forces offers no more than a breathing space – and for some civilians a dying space – before local realities kick in once more.

Perversely, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Afghanistan conflict are fresher and more vivid than the overthrow of Gaddafi in the public’s mind. No wonder. Until very recently, British soldiers were still being killed and maimed for distant and hard-to-measure social gains which could be swept aside tomorrow by underlying conflicts.

So the enduring horror of Iraq has combined with the complex reality of Syria to erase all thought of Libya in the minds of the British voting public. Why then should President Obama risk that it will all seem different to American politicians?

Of course, Congress may take two or three weeks to resolve the issue – by then UN inspectors will have reported and the international community will be closer to knowing who perpetrated the chemical attack in Damascus. That may yet change the public mood on both sides of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the horrific situation for Syrian civilians continues. Voters would have to be made of stone to dismiss the image of 400 children gassed to death with thousands more pleading for help.

Ironically, the unexpected pause in the once-inevitable rush to war has allowed British voters to see merit in both sides of the argument. Far from ‘bungling’ the Syrian vote, David Cameron could yet be buoyed by President Obama’s decision to copy his involvement of democratic representatives.

Syria’s President Assad is in the dock – but Western representative democracy is also on trial. And democracy is an unpredictable thing.