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Why NATO Intervened in Libya, but Not Syria

The war in Syria continues to grind along with Bashar al Assad still in power in Damascus. The security focus in Syria has long since shifted from the Assad regime to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups, which have carved out bases in northern Syria and western Iraq. It has also been four years since the NATO intervention in Libya toppled Muammar Qaddafi. With the UN mandate there set to expire in September, Libya is still the site of daily violence under divided rule between competing coalitions and militias.

NATO has little good news to point to in Syria or Libya. There were many similarities in the early stages of the crises in both these states. However, there are as many differences. NATO decided to intervene in Qaddafi’s Libya in 2011, but has largely decided against intervening against Bashar al Assad in Syria. Understanding why that is the case is important to understanding how we got to where we are today.

What We Knew Then

As the crisis in Syria grew along with calls from some quarters for military intervention, NATO remained hesitant to do so despite parallels with conditions in 2011 Libya. In 2013 Syria, as in Libya, much of the population was in armed revolt as part of the Arab Spring and was met with a bloody regime campaign to put down the rebellion. NATO continued to hold back despite the conflict entering its third year and the August 21st nerve agent attack on civilians in Ghouta, attributed by the US, UK and France to the Assad government, an event previously identified as a “red line by President Obama that would trigger military action. Despite clear evidence the regime crossed this red line, NATO stayed out of Syria.

There were many factors contributing to NATO’s decision against intervening in Syria. Despite using the same Liberal values-based rhetoric and human rights justifications, the situation in Syria elicited a different response. Domestic politics in individual NATO states ran against it. The Syrian military was better trained and equipped and more committed to Assad than the Libyan military to Qaddafi. The influx into Syria of foreign Islamic extremist fighters on the rebel side generated second thoughts for NATO and other actors considering the removal of Assad, discouraged by the prospect of another Middle East counterinsurgency quagmire.

Perhaps the largest contributing factor was that international resistance to a NATO campaign in Syria was more significant than with Libya due to the greater strength of international, regional and internal allies of the Assad regime. Looking at the differences between Libya under Qaddafi and Syria under the Assad’s is instructive.

Libya under Qaddafi

In a 2009 Arab League conference tirade, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi called himself “an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims” before going on to insult fellow Arab leaders. From the beginning of his rule following a military coup in 1969, Qaddafi rubbed the world the wrong way. As an Arab and African Nationalist, he never fit into either camp during the Cold War, but also never managed to use this seeming neutrality to Libya’s advantage in attempting to take up Nasser’s mantle. The lack of ability to make and maintain powerful friends to shore up his power or to properly balance allies against foes would eventually lead to his downfall.

NATO faced almost no opposition to intervention against Qaddafi and was encouraged to act by Arab League support and his loss of domestic support. The dearth of opposition and Qaddafi’s utter lack of allies meant that virtually nothing stood in the way of a NATO campaign there.

Early in Qaddafi’s rule, the US hoped to cultivate him as an anti-communist ally and wanted to maintain strategic airbases in Libya, but hopes were dashed when US troops were expelled in 1970. The nationalization of Libyan oil in 1971 and his anti-colonial agitation soured relations with Britain. The Pan Am 103 bombing and other terrorist acts in the 1980s and the continued use of Libya as a terror haven into the 1990s made him a major NATO enemy in the Middle East and led to harsh UN and US sanctions with severe economic consequences.

His relations were also rocky with the USSR as he “grouped the United States and the Soviet Union together as imperialist countries intent on expanding spheres of influence in the Middle East” and, believing Islam was central to Arab identity, condemned the atheism of the USSR. He was not as skilled as Egypt’s Nasser or Syria’s Assad at walking the line between Moscow and Washington and neither considered him a reliable partner.

Libya was also isolated in the Middle East, with regional leaders, especially Saudi Arabia, viewing negatively Qaddafi’s Arab Nationalist views and misuse of the Islamist mantle to meet political and policy goals. Varying relations with regional powers over OPEC and oil issues and support for Iran during its war with Iraq further deepened its regional problems.

In order to survive an antagonistic position toward the rest of the world, Qaddafi had to build strength at home. He purposely weakened the Libyan military to prevent any challenge while arming loyal militias and the security services. Though weakening the military prevented challenges, it also eventually left him virtually defenseless against more capable NATO-backed forces when the end came. Qaddafi also consolidated internal control by manipulating the tribal system using a carrot and stick policy of granting wealth and government positions to tribes that supported him and legally and violently repressing those that did not.

For the first 30 years of his rule, Qaddafi’s Third International Theory and espousal of Arab and African Nationalism led to rejection of both camps of the Cold War, support for terrorism, politicization of Islam, and continuous squabbles with neighbors and turned Libya into an isolated state with no Great Power patron or strong regional friends. It was not until years after the fall of the Soviet Union that Qaddafi attempted rapprochement with the West. After years of public and behind-the-scenes diplomacy in which Britain played a large role, the Deal in the Desert surrounding handing over the Lockerbie bombers for trial and paying compensation to the victims’ families led to European states re-establishing relations and UN sanctions against Libya being lifted in 2003. Normalization and lifting of unilateral U.S. sanctions did not occur until 2004 when, against the backdrop of the Afghan and Iraq wars, Qaddafi further agreed not to seek weapons of mass destruction and to cooperate in the War on Terror.


The Arab League
, usually hesitant to endorse outside interference in Arab affairs, gave approval to military intervention. He was denounced by the UN Security Council, which approved a no-fly zone over Libya. Before the vote and further after implementation began, the Arab League and Russia, China, India, Germany and South Africa expressed consternation with NATO’s interpretation of the UN resolution. These objections in the UN Security Council and Arab League were too little, too late to save Qaddafi.Libya was in a weakened state of transition from a pariah to a full member of the international community when the Arab Spring struck in March 2011. Qaddafi responded to protests with violent crackdowns in which hundreds of Libyans were killed by the security forces, leading his newly-found Western friends to denounce him again. Qaddafi underestimated the national and international response to the violence, which undid years of public and secret diplomacy to rehabilitate his image.

Internally, despite years of patronage, Libyan tribal leaders from the influential Warfalla and Zawiya tribes who controlled militias and the security services condemned Qaddafi for his violent crackdowns on protests in Tripoli and elsewhere. With a UN resolution and the Arab League against him and support crumbling at home, they sensed the inevitability of his fall. The Libyan military was kept too weak to save him.

Qaddafi’s forces were quickly overcome by the NATO-directed campaign, leading to his death in October 2011. In the end, no one but family and his own tribe stood in support of Muammar Qaddafi. He was not the “dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims” after all.

Syria under the Assads

Hafez al Assad seized power in Syria after a 1970 coup—shortly after Qaddafi’s in Libya. As a Ba’athist and military officer, Hafez was largely influenced by the same Arab Nationalist and Nasserist sentiments and even agreed a short-lived 1971 proposal for a federation between Egypt, Libya and Syria. Hafez al Assad was a shrewd leader with great ability to maintain strong alliances at home and abroad, a trait passed on to his son, Bashar. Hafez was able to build an equal partnership with the USSR without becoming a satellite. The ability to balance alliances and power has kept the Assad regime in power for over forty years and is why it is still holding on despite the Arab Spring and strong international pressure.

The Assad’s are members of the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam and Hafez was the first Syrian president not from the Sunni majority. Though military officers, fellow Alawites and Ba’athists formed Hafez’s base, in power he legitimized and consolidated his rule by including elements of other ethnic and religious minority communities (including Christian Druze and Kurds) in shaping his government and improved the lot of the middle and lower classes. He co-opted and cooperated with other communist and left-leaning political parties. He pursued policy that consolidated all state power in his own hands, but went further than previous governments by legitimizing his rule through inclusion of minorities.

NATO had less at stake in Syria than its opponents and Assad remaining in power did not greatly harm NATO interests, even if it did not help them. Despite the bad company Assad was keeping, he at least had a steady hand on Syria.

While forming a strong base at home, Hafez al Assad also forged international and regional alliances. Syria refused to become a satellite of the US or USSR after throwing off colonial rule. However, the Soviets would sell arms to Syria with no strings attached, unlike NATO. As the USSR sought parity with the West, it curried favor in Syria before Assad took power by offering large public works projects and siding with Syria in the 1967 war as Syrian pilots were shot down flying Russian aircraft.

The relationship grew closer under Assad, with Moscow agreeing multi-million-dollar arms deals and sending thousands of military advisers. The two countries signed multiple diplomatic and trade agreements and Assad dealt with Moscow as an equal, not a subordinate. Syria fielded Soviet military tanks, missiles and other equipment, which were again replaced by Moscow after the disastrous 1973 war. By 1986, Syria had become Moscow’s largest Third World arms purchaser. Regardless of Hafez’s own opinion, America considered Syria a client of the Soviet Union.

In 1980, Syria—Arab, pluralist, Ba’athist-led, with a Sunni-majority—formed a counter-intuitive alliance with Iran—a newly-formed Persian Islamic republic with a Shia majority—in their war with Iraq. This was an act of shrewd political Realism by Assad. Despite being counter to its economic interest, Syria shut its border and blocked Iraq’s oil pipeline to the sea, costing Syria millions of dollars in oil transit fees. Hafez also turned down two billion dollars from Saudi Arabia to reopen it. However, giving much-needed assistance to Iran in its early days greatly increased Syria’s influence with Khomeini and its control over Lebanon, where Iran was induced into influencing Shia much more persuasively than Syria could alone.
This was the situation Bashar al Assad inherited when his father died in 2000. The Soviet Union had collapsed, but Syria’s alliance carried on with Russia. Moscow, along with Tehran, continues to arm and assist Assad to this day. Nonetheless, there was early hope in 2011 that Bashar would ameliorate relations with the West. With the War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Bush administration seemed ready to roll up Middle Eastern dictators.In the early years of the alliance, Syria was the dominant partner. Attacks by Iran-controlled Shia terrorists in 1983-4 led to the withdrawal of Western troops from Lebanon, leaving Syria and Iran squarely in control until 2005. It also increased Syria’s independence and influence in the Middle East as a whole, as it was Syria that set its own course and became a fulcrum point deciding where the balance of regional power would lie. With one decision, Hafez had increased Syria’s influence and made it indispensable in the region.

In 2005, America approached Bashar with a Libya-style deal similar to that offered in 2004 to Qaddafi: Stop interfering in Lebanon, supporting terrorism and supporting the Iraq insurgency and receive normalized relations in return. They saw Bashar as vulnerable following a damning UN report blaming members of the Assad family for murdering popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Despite the blow to its influence when Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon and a Western-backed government coming to power there, Bashar al Assad remained in power in Syria.

Internationally, Russia stood firmly by Assad. Moscow defended the regime before the UN and threatened to veto any military action. Russia acted as Assad’s proxy in negotiations to avert a US strike following the August 21st nerve agent attacks in Ghouta and offered counter-arguments to US and NATO states’ assertions that would support intervention. It continued to supply Syria with arms and displayed a show of force by dispatching additional warships to its Syrian port at Tartus. Stymying NATO efforts in Syria reminded many of the bi-polar era when Moscow was on par with Washington and arguably increased Russian influence and power in Syria and elsewhere.

Regionally, Iran remained committed to Syria in the same manner Syria stood by Iran in 1980. The elite Iranian Quds Force deployed to support Assad on the ground in Syria. Lebanon-based Hezbollah, dependent upon Syria as its conduit of support from Iran, stood ready to fight alongside Assad’s forces. Tehran remained committed to opposing NATO interests anywhere it could in the Middle East as it had since its 1979 revolution, most recently by proxy in Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO troops and a Western-aligned government in Syria, paired with NATO’s presence elsewhere in the region, would have left Iran surrounded and further isolated. Tehran was committed to ensuring that did not happen.

Internally, support from minority factions Hafez al Assad cobbled together to legitimize his rule—military officers, Ba’athists, Alawites—remained largely loyal to Bashar. Fear by many that the tolerance cultivated by Hafez would disappear and the country would return to Sunni-dominated rule held them in the Assad camp. Repression of minorities in rebel-held areas of the country was pointed to as proof of their fate under the rebels. The Syrian military, despite many defections to the rebels, remained largely loyal to Bashar. Many military officers benefited materially from supporting the Assad’s over the years and they stood to lose everything and likely be branded as criminals if Bashar fell. Many senior officers have decided to double down. Other minority groups split between supporting the Assad regime or the rebels and were not enough of a factor to tip the balance to either side.

Unlike Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, the military and factions within Syria did not abandon Assad, nor did allies Russia and Iran. These strong alliances kept Assad in power and their existence checked NATO from taking meaningful military action in Syria.

NATO in Libya

When considering military action against Qaddafi in Libya, NATO faced almost no opposition to intervention and was encouraged to act by initial Arab League support for a no-fly zone and Qaddafi’s loss of domestic support. The dearth of opposition and Qaddafi’s utter lack of allies meant that virtually nothing stood in the way of a NATO campaign there. Action in Libya was significantly easier to achieve.

There was no opposition to refute the case for a UN resolution. Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany abstained from voting and they and other states expressed reservations only after military action had begun, holding they had been duped by NATO as to the meaning and interpretation of the UN resolution, a criticism echoed in the Arab League. There was little opposition and little to lose in getting rid of a nuisance dictator brutally murdering his own people, though the feeling they had been tricked increased some states’ opposition later to authorizing UN action in Syria.

Conducting a Realist calculation, Libya presented no real threat to NATO interests or security since normalizing relations in 2004, but some argued toppling Qaddafi would get rid of a troublesome dictator with a dirty past and grant access to high-quality Libyan crude oil, decidedly in NATO interests. However, NATO states predominantly used Liberal, values-based rhetoric regarding Right to Protect (R2P), democracy, freedom and human rights to legitimize intervention. Both Realist and Liberal justifications were given to support the case for the Libyan action.

NATO and Syria

Syria presented a different case for NATO. The same Liberal arguments used in Libya were being used to justify acting in Syria. For Liberal internationalists, supporting democracy, freedom and human rights—values NATO states universally claim to support—for people facing violence to obtain them is right regardless of the power-political circumstances.

However, as argued then by Eben Coetzee, from a structural Realist perspective, supporting Liberal democracy and freedom during the Arab Spring had been harmful to security interests—and specifically NATO’s—as it had already led to gains for militant Islamism in the region. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamist violence against US targets in Libya (such as Benghazi), and Islamic militants with ties to al Qaeda, such as al Nusra, spreading into Syria were examples. A Realist calculation of balancing potential gains against potential losses held NATO back.

None of these outcomes presents a threat to NATO. What they have done is create a space for and enabled ISIS to build a base and increase their influence in the region and across the world—something NATO claims does harm security and interests. Hence, the shift from toppling Assad to defeating ISIS.

There were arguably gains to be made. Ending Assad rule would deprive Russia and Iran of an ally and a source of mutual support, reducing their regional influence. Iran would be isolated in its own region with the loss of its last large regional state ally (though it would still maintain its influence over the region’s Shia) and disrupt its supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia would lose a major trade partner, be booted out of the Middle East altogether, and lose Tartus, its only port on the Mediterranean. These outcomes would be in NATO’s interest.

Nonetheless, it seems NATO states decided these gains were not worth the potential hazards. NATO and its allies had less at stake in Syria than its opponents and Assad remaining in power did not greatly harm NATO interests, even if it did not help them. Despite the bad company he was keeping, he had a stable hand on his country. In deciding to intervene, NATO would have also faced strong opposition and vetoes from Russia and likely China in the UN Security Council. Taking military action without a UN mandate would have undermined the legitimacy of any NATO action.

Iran already had fighters on the ground in Syria, along with Hezbollah fighters. Russia continued to arm Assad and show military support by dispatching war ships to Tartus. It was unclear how far Russia or Iran would go in defending Assad and their interests. Military action would have increased the violence in Syria and/or led to a larger, longer regional or international war just when NATO states were trying to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assad promised to confront foreign intervention with full military force. Though it had recently signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) following the August 21st nerve agent attacks and agreed to decommission its chemical weapons, Syria still had a sizable stockpile and Assad’s regime had previously threatened to use them against any outside military intervention. If NATO were to intervene, it would have also had to deal with post-war stability and reconstruction efforts and could have faced an Iraq-style insurgency, not to mention having to undertake the task of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons itself.

If Only We Knew Then What We Know Now

Though it was a Machiavellian calculation, all that was at hazard for NATO in 2013 was the prospect that the status quo would be maintained in Syria. It meant that thousands of Syrians continued to die and become refugees. Many now view NATO states as hypocrites for supporting Liberal ideas like democracy and human rights with military intervention in Libya, but not in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Assad have received a boost in power and influence for having seen off the NATO challenge thus far.

None of these outcomes presents a dire, direct threat to NATO security or interests. What they have done is create a space for and enabled ISIS, al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist terror groups to build a base and increase their influence in the region and across the world—something NATO states claim does harm their security and interests. Hence the shift of focus in Syria from toppling Assad to defeating ISIS, al Nusra, and other terror groups. Few foresaw the rise of ISIS as a major consideration in 2013. It is a central concern today.

From a Realist perspective, for NATO in 2013 the possible risks of intervention in Syria outweighed the possible rewards. A comparison of the relative strengths of the allies—or lack thereof—of the regimes in Libya and Syria and what NATO stood to risk, gain and/or lose in either case explains why NATO chose not to intervene in Syria as it did in Libya. It is now focused on other problems there. The result is that the bloody, violent status quo will be maintained in Assad-controlled Syria for now while the US and its partners engage ISIS and other Islamic extremists which pose a greater threat. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Libya’s future where the prospects seem equally as grim. For NATO, in the Middle East there seems to be no good outcomes or options.

[Photos: Flickr Creative Commons]

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1 comment

  1. Tom 29 November, 2015 at 05:08 Reply

    NATO intervened in Libya for the same reason that the US picked on Libya many times. Because it could. With almost no consequences. Syria, on the other hand, is a much more powerful nation. Not one that could stand up to NATO, but one that could make it expensive to go after.

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