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Why Syria is Not Libya

The assessment of Western intelligence agencies that Syria used chemical weapons against opposition rebels has placed the U.S. in a quandary. After President Barack Obama announced in August “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Washington needs to back up its threat with actions to maintain its credibility.

Written by Barak Barfi Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

But the dilemma it faces is much more complicated than planning a simple riposte. The U.S.’s response must be a game changer that will turn the tide on the battlefield in the opposition’s favor without bogging America down in an endless conflict.

For this reason, a low-cost solution such as arming the rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will not suffice. In recent months, its field units have received arms from Croatia purchased by Qatar. At the same time, the organization has captured sophisticated regime weaponry ranging from tanks to anti-aircraft guns. But higher quality munitions have not resulted in more success on the battlefield, and there is no guarantee that flooding the rebels with more weapons will help bring the Syrian revolution to a close anytime soon.

On the other side of the spectrum are those advocating maximum U.S. involvement through the establishment of a no-fly zone and the creation of a safe haven where the Syrian opposition can establish a provisional government. Such an option would severely erode the Syrian regime’s fighting capacity.

But it also risks tethering the U.S. to a conflict with an uncertain outcome. The U.S.’s involvement in Libya provides a compelling example of this. Few believed leader Moammar Gadhafi could survive more than a few weeks of crushing airstrikes. But it endured for more than five months, leaving U.S. officials baffled. In May 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “If you’d asked me four months ago if we’d be in Libya today, I would have asked, ‘What were you smoking?’”

Libya proved an intractable adversary despite not having a military. After losing a 1987 war to Chad, in which it relied on fighters in Taliban-style pickup trucks to dislodge Libyan troops equipped with the latest Soviet tanks, Gadhafi neglected his armed forces. “Officers came to sign in at 9 in the morning and left at 9:30,” said Colonel Khalifa Hiftar to the author. Hiftar helped plot Gadhafi’s 1969 revolution, only to later defect.

When a series of failed coup attempts culminated in an unsuccessful putsch in 1993 that included officers from key tribes, Gadhafi effectively dismantled the army. Instead, he “selected the best officers, put them in brigades and trained them,” Hiftar said. It was these irregular units that largely communicated with each other through cell phones that kept the rebels and their Western patrons at bay for eight months.

Unlike Libya, Syria has a professional army that was the second strongest Arab military behind Egypt before the revolution. And in contrast to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where officers were pensioned off for the slightest sign of disloyalty, Syria has not experienced any purges since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970.

These factors suggest that establishing a Libyan-style no-fly zone where Western nations attack Syrian troops on the march to help the FSA topple the Syrian regime will not work. Worse, such an option will ensnare the U.S. and its allies in a Syrian quagmire in which they will sink deeper with every passing day. In Libya, France eventually deployed helicopters that are more susceptible to enemy attack than fixed wing aircrafts, because the latter were not effective in close combat situations to support rebels there.

The United States would also have to assume more of the burden in Syria. Libya’s proximity to Europe and NATO bases in Italy made it easy for the UK and France to deploy their aircraft to the combat zone. But despite being close to Libya, they still had to occasionally rely on U.S. aircraft to refuel while in flight. Because Syria is a greater distance from Europe, Washington will not only have to provide more refueling flights, but also more sorties, since its allies do not have the long-range fighter bombers needed to cover such distances.

The most effective option for an American superpower that needs to ensure its warnings are heeded, but reluctant to enmesh itself in a long-term conflict, is an air blitzkrieg that decimates Syria’s air force and long-range artillery. By controlling the skies, the regime has been able to resupply isolated air force bases that are in turn used to bomb nearby rebel positions and frighten a civilian population into submission. A quick strike that takes out the regime’s air resources and cripples its runways could tip the balance in the rebels’ favour, while giving Washington the exit it desperately seeks.

Such an option will not seal the regime’s fate. For that to occur, the rebels need to devise a Plan C that takes advantage of unique situations specific to the battle. When Western powers established a no-fly zone in Libya, they believed the rebels there would be able to move from their safe haven in Benghazi to topple Gadhafi in Tripoli. But no outside force since the Arabs conquered Libya in 642 has been able to take the country, moving from east in Asia to west into Africa.

Indeed, the rebels eventually got bogged down in the sands of the Sirte Desert. Only after opposition forces in the western cities of Misrata and Zintan pushed out towards the capital was Gadhafi doomed.

The same scenario is bound to play out in Syria. For with Bashar al-Assad’s army much more entrenched, the rebels will need to find a creative solution to consign him to the dustbin of history next to Gadhafi.

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