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Libya Offers Lessons On Syria’s Uprising – OpEd


By Osama Al Sharif

More than a year has passed since Libyans revolted against their country’s strongman and ruler for four decades Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

What started as a peaceful uprising quickly transformed into an armed struggle. But unlike other mass protests linked to the phenomenon of the Arab Spring, Libya presented itself as a unique case.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution that provided an excuse for direct foreign military intervention in the form of NATO aerial strikes against Qaddafi’s militias and strongholds. Soon anti-government rebels began to militarize and the peaceful rebellion turned into a bloody and brutal military confrontation.

It is now clear that without foreign intervention the Libyan uprising would have taken a different route. Qaddafi and his sons were determined to fight until the end. They had the means to crush the uprising. But NATO bombings, which the Russians and the Chinese saw as illegal, provided an incomparable advantage to the rebels. They were able to drive back Qaddafi militias and finally claim victory.

Libya presents itself as a stand-alone case study in relation to what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. It certainly provides food for thought as the Arabs and the rest of the world contemplate their next move in Syria, a country that has been caught in a cycle of violence for almost a year now.

There are many lessons that Libya can provide.

First, while foreign intervention played a direct and decisive role in sealing the fate of the Qaddafi regime, Libya’s troubles are far from over. The extent of destruction, by NATO and at the hands of the rebels, of cities like Sirte is a grim reminder that the liberation of Libya was achieved at a high human cost. Months after the end of hostilities Libyans are yet to launch a viable political and economic process.

Rebuilding Libya’s most devastated cities like Misrata, Sirte, Al Zawiyeh and others has not started yet and many Libyans are complaining of mismanagement by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the new government.

Second, disarming the rebels has proved to be one of the most challenging missions for the government.

Hundreds of thousands of heavily armed rebels have refused to hand over their arms and join the army or the security forces. In effect, the central government in Tripoli is dysfunctional. It is unable to extend its authority over a vast country where tribal differences and old rivalries have resurfaced.

Third, a weak government that has been unable to launch a political process and the presence of thousands of armed rebels have resulted in numerous incidents of human rights abuses against suspected Qaddafi loyalists.

International organizations have documented reports of widespread human rights violations including torture and extrajudicial executions. The NTC has been unable to arrive at national reconciliation while reports of a rise in the power and influence of radicals is causing regional and international concern.

Fourth, in the absence of an all encompassing viable political process to bring all Libyans together, a group of tribal heads has declared the oil-rich region of the east semi-autonomous under the name of Cyrenaica or Berqa. They chose a cousin of the last monarch of Libya, Sharif Ahmad El Senussi, as head of this new federal region.

The move was denounced by president of the NTC Ahmad Abdel Jalil and thousands of people marched in the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli to warn that the move was aimed at splitting the country. There are fears that the Berber population of the Western Mountain region may now be encouraged to do the same. The demise of the Qaddafi regime has revealed the country’s diverse tribal and ethnic differences.

These and other lessons must be absorbed fully as we look at the Syrian crisis. While there is no doubt that the Syrian uprising is genuine and that the regime is ruthlessly trying to crush it by all means available, one cannot but hesitate to condone a repeat of the Libyan model. Foreign intervention in Syria may be key in stopping the regime’s killing machine, but at what cost to the civilian population that will certainly be caught in the middle?

In addition, arming the rebels, as some Arab and foreign states are demanding, will bring the Syrians closer to a civil war scenario. And just like in Libya the big challenge will be to disarm hundreds of thousands of militiamen after the toppling of the regime. There are no guarantees that a

victory for anti-government forces will not lead to massive acts of retribution against regime loyalists and extrajudicial executions.

Furthermore, the Syrian opposition is divided and is unlikely to unite after the fall of the regime. A political power vacuum will give way to separatist movements in a country that has diverse ethnic, religious and tribal groups.

The division of post revolution Syria is not far-fetched and with an armed population civil war could easily erupt. Syria poses a serious challenge to regional and world security. Doing nothing as the regime butchers its own population is not an option. But the Libyan case must be taken into consideration when weighing other options.

For now, diplomacy in the form of the joint UN-Arab League initiative undertaken by Kofi Annan, is the only practical, albeit doubtful, approach.

Diplomatic efforts should instead focus on Syria’s superpower allies, namely Russia and China, to convince the regime to stop its killing spree and opt for a political solution.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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