Is Libya a “False Analogy” (in Hillary Clinton’s Words) to Syria?

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

A UN Security Council resolution draft came into the hands of The Guardian yesterday, condemning the ongoing violence in Syria and calling for Assad’s regime to take all necessary steps to effect a cease-fire and pursue power-sharing arrangements with opposition groups within 15 days of the resolution’s passage.

So where will the international community go from here if, as in Libya, the leading opposition movement comes out firmly in favor of foreign intervention to establish, at the very least, a no-fly zone over northern Syria to establish a base area for refugees and anti-Assad fighters?

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — co-sponsor alongside the US of the “Arab Counterrevolution” in Bahrain — is reportedly now pressing the US to take advantage of Syria’s disorder to deal a death blow to Iran’s Levantine pretensions. Qatar has been the most vocal in calling for Assad to step down, but Saudi Arabia is also making a lot of noise. The Syrian National Council even claims that the Saudis will be next to recognize them as Syria’s legitimate government (the Saudis have not commented on this claim).

As the Financial Times notes, this would be a gamble for the Saudis. Opportunism over Syria could worsen tensions in the Persian Gulf. In trying to undermine Iran in Syria, Riyadh could end up helping to drive Tehran into a corner. As hostile as the Saudis have been towards Iran since the 1979 Revolution, they would prefer regime change in Tehran arrive without drawing the Kingdom into an international conflict.

Right now, Russia, with its UN Security Council veto, is the biggest obstacle to UN action on Syria. Given the way that Moscow and its former Caucasian republics have lurched from one separatist crisis to another since 1991, the Russian government is adamantly opposed to backing movements that would wrest Syria from its current orbit, either on humanitarian or strategic grounds. Russia’s interests in Syria are dominated by the country’s strategic location (bordering Iraq, Israel and NATO-member Turkey), the Tartus naval base, multibillion dollar natural gas investments, and arms sales.

Russia is now trying to mediate a compromise between Assad and opposition forces, though a spokesman from the SNC says his organization will not join in them. It was unlikely that they would, since the Russian Foreign Ministry has just stopped short of calling the SNC a pro-Western puppet government-in-waiting, and the SNC does not regard Russia as an “honest broker” (with good reason, of course).

The EU, or, specifically, the UK and France, seek to maintain their relevance as Mediterranean powers. Under Sarkozy, France has (when convenient) taken a more active human rights position among “Club Med” members. Libya provided the EU with an excellent opportunity to do just this, and while there is much heated debate going on in the European press on whether or not NATO (or the UN) should intervene directly, it is unlikely that they would pass on the opportunity to take action, not least because of their NATO security commitments. Notably, several anti-Assad groups, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Barada TV are based in London, and the biggest SNC boosters of all have been the British neocons of the Henry Jackson Society. For now, though, Paris and London are hedging their bets: Reuters reports that British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the resolution “does not call for military action and could not be used to authorize it,” and that “French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described the idea of such intervention as a myth.”

“Myth,” Juppe says, but his office has been meeting with SNC members. And barely three weeks after NATO’s Secretary General said that “I would like to stress that NATO has no plans to intervene and we have not received any request,” the armed forces of the US, UK and France were striking Libyan targets and enforcing a naval blockade, having quickly moved from calls for sending a “mission of enquiry” to the country to knocking out Qadhafi’s forces laying siege to Benghazi.

China is not as deeply committed to Syria and Russia is, but like Russia is disposed to balk at intervention on humanitarian grounds and concerned over how Assad’s collapse would affect its ally, Iran. China, alongside Russia, vetoed a Security Council resolution last October on Syria. The main obstacle at this stage for the UN to pursue diplomatic efforts, though, is Russia, not China.

No military commitment has even been broached by a US official yet. The Obama Administration has made it clear that it wants Assad gone, and has convened a semi-secret policy group to discuss further steps that can be taken against his regime, though for now it appears this group is discussing sanctions, not special ops insertion. Going into the UN, Hilary Clinton said that “I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya. … That is a false analogy. ”

But barring a palace coup among Assad’s security establishment, foreign military action would probably be necessary to tip the scales in the opposition’s favor at this stage. Unless convinced that by ousting Assad, they could retain overall control over the government by brokering an agreement with some members of the opposition, his Alawite coreligionists and family members would have little reason to surrender or defect unless faced with overwhelming military might — which the “Free Syrian Army” cannot muster — that would nullify their numerical and qualitative advantages. Absent a rain of ruin from the air, Assad merely has to call the West’s bluff and try to do as his late father and exiled uncle did between 1976 and 1982 against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even with his army and air force’s advantages, though, the situation would be different than it was back then. The “Free Syrian Army” — which is no army, according to Nir Rosen, but rather an inaccurate catch-all term to describe militias that have risen up to defend their communities over the past year — will likely defy heavy-handed crackdowns due to its lack of unity. And, unlike in 1982 when Hama was surrounded and pulverized by Assad’s father, the whole world will be watching events unfold in Syria much more closely, this time through a lens provided by the Syrian opposition.

Important Washington organizations like WINEP and Brookings are taking careful note of their pronouncements, as are influential media sources in the Middle East such as Yedioth Ahronoth and Al Jazeera. Politicians and opinion leaders are paying attention to what the SNC has to say about Assad’s future and military intervention. Whether the Council will be able to push a seemingly hesitant NATO into taking military action remains to be seen.

Paul Mutter is a Fellow at Truthout and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.