x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syria closely watching fate of Libya

As Libyan rebels gain ground in Tripoli, pro-democracy supporters in Syria predict the end for President Al Assad.

Libyan rebel fighters fire towards forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi during fierce gunfire in downtown Tripoli, Libya on Monday.
Libyan rebel fighters fire towards forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi during fierce gunfire in downtown Tripoli, Libya on Monday.

DAMASCUS// The fall of Tripoli to rebel forces, ending Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's 42-year reign over Libya, has had a special resonance in Syria, where an anti-regime uprising is similarly facing a powerful and firmly entrenched leader, President Bashar Al Assad.

Thousands of anti-government protesters took to Syria's streets yesterday after a televised appearance by Mr Al Assad - shown as Libyan rebels raced into the capital - shouting for him to step down and chanting "Qaddafi is gone, now it's your turn Bashar", according to activists.

Syrians have long seen symmetry between the two struggles, with opposition figures and regime loyalists alike seeking prophetic signals from the unfolding situation in Libya, and quietly drawing conclusions from events there about their respective hopes for victory at home.

"As long as Qaddafi held on, the Syrian regime took comfort and felt it had a free hand to do as he wanted without fear of the international community, which had its plate full with Libya," said a pro-democracy dissident in Damascus.

"Now that Qaddafi is finished, Syria will be the focus for the Arab Spring and international pressure," he continued. "That means those calculations [by the Syrian regime] will have to change; Assad has more reason to worry now than he did two days ago, the end is drawing closer."

Even during the early days of Syria's uprising, which began in March - a month after the Libya revolt started - dissidents, protesters and independent analysts had often referred to the fate of Tripoli as holding an important key to their own futures.

It was there, not Egypt or Tunisia - where protesters quickly ousted autocratic rulers with relative ease, and without facing regime loyalist armies - that Syrians, as well as many international commentators, believed the parallels lay.

Syrian dissidents had hoped for a fast victory by Libyan rebels and that armed intervention by Nato would send a stark message to Damascus about the regime's prospects for retaining power, if it dared to use military force against the population or failed to genuinely reform.

Those aspirations soon floundered however as the Libya conflict dragged on, disorganised rebel forces retreating and fissures opening in the international coalition ranged against Col Qaddafi.

Instead, it was the Syrian authorities drawing succour from the Libyan leader's defiance of apparently impossible odds and mirroring his use of tanks against dissidents. Damascus was content to see the pro-intervention West being taught another Iraq-style lesson in Libya about stepping into Middle Eastern quagmires.

While Arab states had supported military action against Col Qaddafi, Syria had been firmly opposed. In March, media reports suggested that Syrian fighter pilots and special forces troops had been sent to help the Libyan leader win his war, in exchange for hard currency. Damascus quickly took the unusual step formally denying the claims.

Russia, a key Syrian ally, was also angered by Nato's actions, accusing the West of overstepping its United Nation's mandate to protect civilian lives. As international pressure increased on Syria over its suppression of largely peaceful protests, Moscow stood by Damascus.

Russia specifically cited the Libya precedent when blocking attempts to pass a UN resolution condemning the crackdown, saying it feared any decision would be used to justify military intervention in Syria - the situation in Libya had gifted the Syrian regime vital cover and breathing space, analysts said.

The United States and European countries leading criticism of Mr Al Assad's regime have all been at pain to stress military action is not being considered, with officials highlighting differences between the situations in Libya and Syria.

Crucially, unlike Libya, Syrian demonstrators have pointedly refused foreign intervention, despite security forces killing more than 2,000 civilian protesters, according to human rights monitors. And, to date, there is little sign of the international community, or Arab states, having any desire to become embroiled in what could amount to a regional war.

Syria, at the heart of the Middle East, enjoys a close strategic alliance with Iran and has powerful cards to play in the event of an attack, including its partnership with Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, arguably the most capable fighting force in the Arab world.

Damascus has also drawn support from neighbouring Iraq while Russia and Turkey, both increasingly critical of Mr Al Assad, have also not yet turned their backs on him entirely.

Yet, ominously for the Syrian leader, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once an ally of both Damascus and Tripoli, last week openly compared Mr Al Assad to Col Qaddafi saying "the same situation is going on in Syria [as Libya]….civilians are getting killed".

British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg made similar remarks yesterday, saying Mr Al Assad was "as irrelevant to Syria's future as Qaddafi is to Libya's."

According to one independent Syrian political analyst, military action by an international coalition against the regime could yet happen, and is more likely now that Nato can claim some success in Libya.

"There are various scenarios that would lead to war, not soon but in the end, particularly if thousands more civilians are killed," he said.

"The political stakes with Syria are much higher than Libya; there is a chance to change the whole face of the Middle East and for the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to greatly weaken Iran. That must be a tempting prospect, it's a once in a lifetime chance to get rid of a regime that has been a thorn in their sides for decades."

Such a military intervention was clearly on the mind of Mr Al Assad who, in his fourth televised address to the nation on Sunday night - broadcast as Libyan rebels overran Tripoli - bluntly cautioned against any such move.

"Any action against Syria will have huge consequences that they [the attackers] will not be able to tolerate," he said, warning that his enemies did not fully understand Syria's military capabilities.

Nonetheless, some opposition figures believe the prospect of facing an international military force could intimidate the Syrian regime and help splinter a security forces that have so far been overwhelmingly unified and loyal to Mr Al Assad.

"We certainly don't want Western military action in Syria but the threat of it could be a useful psychological weapon," said one Syrian dissident, on condition of anonymity, when asked about the parallels between Libya and his own country.

"If the [Syria] regime believes it will be attacked there will be dissent among the elite and we more likely to see a military coup or moderate regime figures leaving the hard-core loyalists to fight alone," he said.

"The end is coming," he added." All that remains to be decided is how long it will take to arrive, and how much blood it will cost. We want to it be as fast and as cheap as possible."

psands@thenational.ae