Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Of Libya and Syria

Last week, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham argued the need for Obama's administration to supply weapons to Syrian opposition forces. While the strategic analysis is sound, that such action could weaken Iran, a major question, however, remains. What will happen should the opposition overthrow President Bashar al-Assad?

What happened in Libya after the death of Qaddafi should give everyone some pause. The militias are running out of control. The head of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) Mustafa Abdul-Jalil even admitted that the council was powerless to control them.

The reason is simple: Libya was a military victory, not a political one. What I mean here is that the rebels' victory happened without them creating a coherent strong administrative and governing organization that could control the country, especially the armed groups.

While it is true that the NTC had support from many countries as noted in my previous post, they never had total control over all militia groups in Libya. Most militias only gave lip-service to its authority; they never really bought into the idea that the NTC was a legitimate political entity. The armed groups backed the NTC for a fairly straightforward reason: they despised Qaddafi and gambled that it was best to band together under the NTC banner because they all realized that they could not win against Qaddafi on their own.

More importantly, however, recognizing the NTC meant that some arms support, especially from France, was provided, which they received directly through airdrops. That, inadvertently, undermined the NTC itself, as it could not use the weapons as some sort of carrot-and-stick to maintain the loyalty of the militias.

By the time the rebels managed to overrun Qaddafi's defenses in Tripoli, everyone was completely armed to teeth, and the NTC did not have the ability to disarm them or to impose any control over them, unless the NTC was willing to provoke another devastating civil war. And it's clear the NTC wasn't willing to go that far.

This post-war mess has happened because the political leaders in France, Britain, and the United States focused on achieving a quick victory and neglected thinking of "what next." Thus, instead of channeling the arms through the NTC, they dropped it directly to the rebel militias. Instead of trying to force a strong unitary command, they opted to have a quick victory by arming everyone. This quick victory meant that the central political organization did not have time to mature and to gain some sort of legitimacy and power. Rather, there are now many groups willing and capable of pursuing their self-interests and exercising their power.

Apparently, these three nations didn't grasp the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, that a political settlement is a must in order to prevent further chaos. All three nations were running against the clock: the longer the war, the more expensive it would be, and more costly politically, especially in the United States. Thus, regardless of "what next," the war must be won.

Of course, few now care about Libya. Qaddafi fell and that was that. The 24/7 news-cycle has moved on to Syria. Nobody cares about the aftermath of Obama's splendid little war.

Still, this should be a lesson for Syria. Rather than looking to quickly foment the collapse of the House of Assad, what Syria needs is a strong, unified rebel organization that can impose control over its militias. It will take time, but it has to be done.

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