Mehrunisa Qayyum - “Syria is not Libya,” Ambassador Peter Wittig emphasized as he responded to questions comparing global reactions to NATO intervention in Libya but not Syria. Edward Luck, U.N. Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect, echoed back, “Syria is not Libya.”
Syria is not Libya for a variety of reasons. First, Libya has only one-third of Syria’s population and a more homogeneous one. Second, Iran is a key ally of Syria. And third, Syrian politics rests of other sensitive “fault lines,” including the Kurdish issue, Lebanon, and Israel. Even so, the demographic makeup and political alliances should not obviate the flagrant abuse of human rights violations committed by the Assad regime.
Still, can Syria at least learn from Libya’s history of authoritarian leaders, economic sanctions, and a bloody but game-changing revolution?
As Saudi Arabia withdraws its ambassador from Damascus and the U.S. moves to shut down its embassy, human rights activists in Syria and its Diaspora communities remain puzzled by why the UN’s “Right to Protect”, or R2P, resolution applied to Libya but not Syria.
R2P ultimately led to the imposition of a NATO “no-fly zone” in Libya as stipulated in UN Res 1973. Yet, there has been little talk of such a measure in Syria. As human rights activists have noted, over 5,000 Syrians have been killed while thousands more remain in political detention. Since March 15, 2011, when uprisings first emerged in the southwestern city of Daraa, the U.K.-based human rights group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted that Syria shares Libya’s experience in that its “elected” leader continues to concoct conspiracies to justify using its army to shoot at and detain its people.
The criteria for R2P appear nebulous and open to interpretation as well as relying on the actions of civil society. Additionally, it requires multi-lateral support from the region itself. In Libya’s case, the League of Arab States unanimously agreed to implement a no-fly zone. Next came on-the-ground opposition. R2P presupposes that outside forces will select and arm the opposition of the regime in order to aid the effort. Unfortunately, according to Richard Williamson, Nonresident Fellow at Brookings, aiding defenseless civilians usually means empowering an armed faction that frequently commits human rights abuses themselves.
Prior to the Arab Awakening, the track record for boycotts and sanctions was not proven to be successful. In the case of Iraq, the Iraqi sanctions regime ironically came to an end with the 2003 invasion to remove Saddam Hussein for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with human rights or the efficacy of economic sanctions. During those sanctions, Iraqi civilians felt the brunt of Saddam’s inhumane treatment of political dissidents and minorities while also suffering under the brunt of a decimated economy. Indeed the effects of implementing a blockade in trade and investment regarding Iraq debilitated society in that at least 500,000 Iraqi children died since they had no access to medical services or suffered from malnutrition.
Flash forward to the example of Syria. In an act of civil disobedience, Syrian shopkeepers closed their stores in Homs and parts of the Southern Daraa province. Many schools joined the strike which has come to be known as “Strike for Dignity.” At the same time, essential goods stores and pharmacies remained open. However, threats of violence to shopkeepers and break-ins by Assad loyalists attempted to interrupt the strike. Ali Hassan, spokesman for the Turkish-formed Syrian Revolution Council told Al-Arabiya that, “The Hama governor threatened to seal off the stores in the city and forces threatened to set these stores on fire.”
Iraq and Syria differ in some aspects regarding the economic sanctions. Initially, in Iraq’s case, the proponents for implementing sanctions argued that the middle class would respond to the debilitating effects by removing its dictator. The costs of war or military intervention would be avoided. However, the Iraqi sanctions plan backfired. Ultimately, the U.S. conducted a military operation to remove Saddam because the Iraqi opposition had been weakened either by the sanctions or the decision to migrate.
In contrast, economic sanctions have galvanized some segments of Syria by expanding their civil disobedience to include the strategy that could not take root in Iraq: business protest. Small businessmen shut down stores but we have not seen the civil disobedience emerge in Damascus, the largest city and center of Syrian trade. Although businesses in Damascus and Aleppo continue to operate, they are not spared any hardship: three hour long power outages occur daily.
From a top-down approach, the Syrian regime has not learned from its Iraqi neighbor’s experience: Iraq’s authoritarian rule under Saddam Hussein throughout the 80s and 90s presents a variety of lessons learned. Generally: gorging civil society incites violence; international sanctions are actually effective; Gulf countries’ leadership remain reticent even when they decide to no longer trade with targeted country; and economic sanctions rely on the middle class to organize swiftly and implement boycotts. The time horizon of longer sanction periods works against organizing interests while alienating civil society and hurting households.
Certainly, there are many other lessons learned. Economic sanctions require citizens to behave as dissatisfied consumers and act like highly-organized citizens.
Overall, the macro-economic picture of Syria looks bleak. Of course Syrian regime leaders say otherwise: Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jleilati argues that Syria regime expects growth of 1 percent. Looking at Iraq, it will take several generations for Syria to rebuild its economy, civil society, and it investor confidence–civil war or not. At the very least, because of the growing civil disobedience, the Syrian people will not have to rebuild its path towards dignity. When it comes to revolution, change comes from within. As we had hoped to see with Iraq and Libya, so too do we hope to see with Syria. Regardless if Syria is not Libya, and thereby “exempt” from any chance to have R2P applied, Syria may not be Iraq either. We learned that Iraq’s economic sanctions did not launch a civil disobedience movement. Also, we learned from Libya that not even foreign military intervention could remove Gaddafi. It was his own people that were left to finish the job.
This article originally appeared at Aslan Media. It is reprinted here with permission.