Lessons from Tripoli


Now that the Gadhafi regime appears to have been toppled, are there any lessons to be learned for elsewhere in the Arab world?

(Bashar Assad, this means you.)

Let’s look at the record so far:


Tunisiatoppled: Started by self-immolating fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, the revolution here quickly spread and resulted in the ouster of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, inspiring Arab protesters from Casablanca to the Persian Gulf. In the months since, however, the country hasn’t quite gotten its act together, and popular frustration is mounting.

Egypttoppled: The fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime sent a tremor across the Arab world, but the result owed at least as much to the military’s decision to side with the people as to the protesters themselves. Six months on and with the military firmly in control of the institutions of state, this uprising looks more like a military coup than a democratic revolution.

Yemenjury’s out: Actually, it’s the president that’s still out. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in an assassination attempted and decamped to Saudi Arabia for treatment, vowing to return. Many observers thought this was it for Saleh, but no clear successor or armed group has emerged in his wake. The country continues to teeter on the edge of civil war.

Bahrain – survived: Thanks to the pro-Western orientation of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ethnic composition of the opposition (Shiite, just like Iran), and armed support from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s Sunni king was able to put down mass protests. Western powers paid lip service to the idea of the rights of civil resistance, but when push came to shove they made little noise when the king brought in tanks to supress demonstrations by the majority-Shiite populace.

Libyatoppled: What made Libya different from other places where rebellions were successfully suppressed? NATO airstrikes. When you have the Americans and the Europeans supplying bombing sorties, logistics and weapons, there’s a lot a ragtag bunch of rebels can do.

Syria – ongoing: This is the big question mark in the Middle East. Like Libya’s Muamar Gadhafi, Assad has made clear he has no qualms about mowing down his own people (though he has been wise enough not to describe them as "rats"). Assad has banned journalists from the country, and by all accounts has killed thousands of his own citizens. Yet they continue to take to the streets to demand his ouster, apparently in growing numbers.

There are a few differences that make Syria’s situation unique. Western powers have been slow to call for Assad’s ouster. They came around only last week, with coordinated statements from the United States and Europe and new sanctions against Damascus. But so far there has been no real consdideration of backing up that talk with airstrikes, as in Libya.

Why? For one thing, it wouldn’t look good for the United States to be involved in four wars against Muslim countries (count ’em: Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya). Unlike with Libya, in Syria the opposition has not asked the West for support.

For another, the Arab world is not united against Assad as it was against Gadhafi. Libya’s quixotic leader had few friends; Assad is still a friend to Arab autocrats and a champion to some Arabs, including the Alawite minority in Syria from which he hails.

In Washington (and Israel and elsewhere in the region, for that matter) there is anxiety about what a post-Assad Syria would look like. That’s not to say that either the Americans or Israelis have any affection for Assad, but the instability that doubtless would follow his ouster could prove complicated for a whole host of neighbors: Israel, which already is dealing with instability on its borders with Gaza and Egypt; Lebanon, to which Syria has played the role of patron and overlord (kind of like a mafia boss); and Iran, which is closely allied with the Syrian regime. A vacuum of power in Syria could be filled by Tehran.

Because Syria has so long been a pariah state, the United States doesn’t have the kind of leverage it had in Egypt to influence events.

For the time being, it seems that so long as the West declines to take up arms, it’ll be up to the Syrian people to get rid of their leader. But after decades of iron control by the Assad family, the Syrian people seem ill-equipped to the task. And unlike in Libya, the protests haven’t quite turned into full-scale armed insurrection — yet.

Stay tuned.

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