The apparent fall of Tripoli to rebel forces has prompted no end of overly exuberant rhetoric about the prospects for deposing dictators beyond Libya. This is utterly misleading. Many commentators have propagated the idea that Libya shows the world will not turn a blind eye to atrocities or allow dictators to kill with impunity. More accurately, the world will not allow some dictators to kill with impunity, and killing with impunity often works.
Attention is likely to turn to Syria as the “next step” in democratizing the Middle East. Some people think that the rebel victory in Tripoli bodes ill for Syria – far from it. Assad has every reason to be more optimistic about his fate than Gaddafi had about his own. For one thing, victory in Libya does not increase, in any way, Western leverage over Syria, or the Syrian protest movement’s strength against Syrian security services. In theory, Libya frees up military resources for an intervention in Syria, but such an intervention is not likely to come and would prove disastrous in comparison to Libya. So, knowing that an intervention is not on the way, Assad really has no reason to think that Tripoli’s fall will hasten his own.
Syria, unlike Libya, has a strong army, because Gaddafi gutted his for fear of being overthrown. Libya, unlike Syria, had a better-armed resistance movement, which, even at its most disorganized and Mad Max-aping moments, still displayed more military ingenuity and initiative than anyone in Syria has for long enough to make it into the media, at least. Syria is more prone to divide-and-rule tactics because its potential for centrifugal ethnic politics is greater than in Libya. Syria is also easier for a centralized military regime to manage in a geographic sense than Libya. Benghazi and the “free East” could establish itself during the war in part because it was not easily accessible from Gaddafi’s base of support in Tripoli. Syria is a relatively compact country, and its border cities are a march away without significant geographic or logistical impediment. This has allowed the Syrian military to crush rebellion in detail, city by city, preventing a Syrian equivalent of Benghazi from emerging. Syria also has a patron, Iran, whereas Libya’s best friends were in governments such as Venezuela and South Africa, not quite useful for issues of regime survival.
That Syria saw an increase in violence as NATO committed further resources in Libya should be proof of exactly what kind of message Odyssey Dawn sent to other dictators. Political willpower and resources being spent in Libya are assets that cannot be directed towards one’s own country. The success of a North African regime in suppressing its people means very little for a Levantine regime’s prospects for doing the same, except in the vaguest moral assertions. Any political commentary which purports to teach lessons to dictators without understanding their mindset ought be ignored. The Bard, naturally, had a very keen understanding of the tyrannical mindset which ought be paid more heed in modern analyses:
For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
If you are a dictator, once you have begun killing it is essential to kill your way to control, to paraphrase William F. Owen. When killing has started, you will receive no forgiveness from your own people, and Westerners will not allow themselves to forgive you until you leave them with no viable alternative to your rule. Better, as Shakespeare put it, to just wade to the other shore of the river of blood. Killing can and does work, as history shows.
Recognizing that US leverage in Syria is extremely low, there has nevertheless been a predictable demand for Obama to fill his empty words – and calling for the downfall of a dictator is cheap, geopolitical pronouncements and blustery invective against one’s opponents in all defiance of actual political viability is their forte, after all – by implementing sanctions and isolating Syria. If one wants a prediction, my guess is that such international effects will be about as effective as the attempt to isolate the Burmese junta have been so far, which is to say, totally ineffective.
Burma is a state that has waded back and forth across the river of blood many times now. They have killed their way to control multiple times, and willingly gunned down robed Buddhist monks. In many ways, the Tatmadaw has a tougher task than Syria. The Burmese opposition has a widely beloved and recognized international face and figurehead, unlike the nebulous and disorganized Syrian opposition. Unlike Syria, Burma also has a wide range of armed groups (who the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi do not really represent) which have managed to establish zones of operations in the Burmese periphery. These groups are relatively more coherent and have much more favorable geographies for fighting centralized control. Yet despite decades of sanctions and multiple attempts at democratization, the Tatmadaw endures, even if under the farcical guise of a new democratic state.
Saudi Arabia has condemned Damascus’s actions, which is not surprising given the widely-held perception that Syria is now an Iranian puppet state. Some commentators have wondered whether or not a local power such as Saudi Arabia “can or should” have more influence than the US over Syria’s destiny. Absolutely it can and should. At the end of the day, by virtue of geographic fixity, local powers have a more acute sensitivity and enduring connection to the fates of their neighbors than do far-off superpowers such as the United States. Their disposition, and all the diplomatic, military, and economic consequences those entail, matter more. Particularly since the US is not likely to pursue regime change in Syria, its leverage is extremely limited compared to that of Syria’s actual neighbors. The most the US can really do is isolate Syria, but that won’t save Syrian lives or change the fact that for Assad, “Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Perhaps it would send another meaningless signal to other dictators.
So, what lessons will dictators really take away from Libya? I will venture to guess a few. Firstly, do not gut your army. If you are worried about a coup, build a stronger parallel internal security force. Gutting your regular military just reduces the tools at your disposal when things finally go bad. Secondly, do not rely on Western forgiveness as a means of ensuring your survival. Democracies are fickle, and when public opinion changes you will find your investments in your son’s graduate education and sponsored guest tours for intellectual apologists rather worthless as anti-air defenses or crowd control devices. Thirdly, do not cash in your potential deterrent program without a serious payoff. Keeping the previous point in mind, remind yourself that when you give up the ability to pursue a credible nuclear program, you are not just cashing in a bargaining chip, but surrendering an instrument which essentially guarantees your independence from foreign powers except in cases where your own aggression demands a response.
A sober analysis of the dictatorial calculus reveals that Libya will continue to fail to deter state violence against civilians in other countries, particularly Assad’s Syria. So far the only “completed” revolutions in Libya have come through either the decision of the armed power center of a country to support the people (as in Tunisia) or the people taking up arms and destroying alternative power centers (Libya). In Syria, we should expect no differently. Those with arms will ultimately decide the outcome, and the options the West has available are very unlikely to convince the armed power centers of Syria to give in to protests peacefully or give Syria’s protests the ability to violently overcome a Syrian military far superior to Gaddafi’s. Even if such efforts do get underway, Syria is at much deeper risk for internal conflict between rebel groups than Libya was. Libya’s victory is, so far, great for Libyans. It does not mean much in practical terms for their fellow Arabs in the Levant.
As a side note, I hope US assets involved in Libya have contingency plans for locating, dismantling, or destroying high-importance Libyan arms in the country’s depots. I also hope they have them for doing so unilaterally without the permission of local commanders in rebel-held territory. Libya is being liberated by an army of rebels, not mercenaries or professionals. They have no paymaster and increasing access to weapons such as surface to air missiles, anti-tank missiles, and MANPADS, along with ballistic missiles and other equipment. Strelas are worth good money and they are in high demand. Considering how much damage a “dumb” RPG did to elite US operators, the proliferation of guided missiles is a serious danger to air mobile forces everywhere. I would not hold my breath and wait for transitional council efforts to make government transparent and its behavior legitimate , or rely on such long-term dreams as useful substitutes for real policy problems. My guess is neither are the arms dealers.