Monday, January 20, 2014

Why NATO Intervened in Libya but not Syria

Authored 31 October, 2013.

Despite calls to intervene militarily in Syria, NATO has remained hesitant to do so despite surface parallels with conditions in 2011 Libya which precipitated a NATO intervention that toppled the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. In Syria today, as in 2011 Libya, much of the population is in armed revolt as part of the Arab Spring and being met by a bloody regime campaign to put down the rebellion. Despite similarities, NATO has held back despite the conflict entering its third year and the August 21st nerve agent attack on civilians in Damascus, attributed by the U.S., UK and France to the Assad government (Reuters, 2013), an event identified as a ‘red line’ that would trigger military action (Reuters, 2012).

There are many factors contributing to NATO’s decision against intervening in Syria. Despite using the same Liberal values-based rhetoric and human rights justifications, the situation in Syria has elicited a different response. Domestic politics in individual NATO states runs against it. The Syrian military is better trained and equipped and more committed to Assad than the Libyan military to Qaddafi. The influx into Syria of foreign Islamic extremist fighters on the rebel side has generated second thoughts for NATO and other actors considering the removal of Assad (Martini et al, 2012: 5-7).

The largest contributing factor—and the one I will focus on—is that the resistance to a NATO campaign in Syria would be more significant than with Libya due to the greater strength of international, regional and internal allies of the Assad regime. In the following sections I will compare and contrast the Libyan and Syrian regimes in turn in reference to their relationships with international, regional and internal allies and then show why their respective effects on NATO’s ‘Realist’ calculation has led to the choice not to act in Syria.

Libya under Qaddafi

In an Arab League conference tirade, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi called himself, ‘an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims’ before going on to insult fellow Arab leaders (Otterman and Mackey, quoting Qaddafi, 2009). From the beginning of his rule following a military coup in 1969, Qaddafi rubbed the world the wrong way. As an Arab Nationalist, he never fit into either camp during the Cold War, but also never managed to use this seeming neutrality to Libya’s advantage in attempting to take up Nasser’s mantle (St. John, 1987: 21). The lack of ability to make and maintain powerful friends to shore up his power or to properly balance allies against foes would eventually lead to his downfall.

Early in Qaddafi’s rule, the U.S. hoped to cultivate him as an anti-communist ally and wanted to maintain strategic airbases in Libya, but hopes were dashed when U.S. troops were expelled in 1970 (Zoubir, 2006: 48-9). The nationalisation of Libyan oil in 1971 and his anti-colonial agitation soured relations with Britain (St. John, 1987: 115). The Pan Am 103 bombing and other terrorist acts in the 1980s and the continued use of Libya as a terror haven into the 1990s (Church, 1992) made him a major NATO enemy in the Middle East and led to harsh UN and U.S. sanctions with severe economic consequences.

His relations were also rocky with the USSR as he ‘grouped the United States and the Soviet Union together as imperialist countries intent on expanding spheres of influence in the Middle East’ and, believing Islam was central to Arab identity, condemned the atheism of the USSR. He was not as skilled as Nasser or Assad at walking the line between Moscow and Washington and neither considered him a reliable partner (St. John, 1987: 29).

Libya was also isolated in the Middle East, with regional leaders, especially monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, viewing negatively Qaddafi’s Arab Nationalist views and misuse of Islam to meet political and policy goals (ibid.: 149). Varying relations with regional powers over OPEC and oil issues (ibid.: 107-24) and support for Iran during its war with Iraq (Associated Press, 1985) further deepened its regional problems.

In order to survive an antagonistic position toward the rest of the world, Qaddafi had to build strength at home. He purposely weakened the Libyan military to prevent any challenge while arming loyal militias and the security services (Hendawi, 2011). Though weakening the military prevented challenges, it also eventually left him virtually defenceless against more capable NATO forces. According to Mokhefi (2011), Qaddafi also consolidated internal control by manipulating the tribal system using a ‘carrot and stick’ policy of granting wealth and government positions to tribes that supported him and legally and violently repressing those that did not.

For the first 30 years of his rule, Qaddafi’s rejection of both camps of the Cold War, support for terrorism, espousal of Arab Nationalism, politicisation of Islam and continuing squabbles with neighbours turned Libya into an isolated state with no Great Power patron or strong regional friends. It was not until years after the fall of the Soviet Union that Qaddafi attempted rapprochement with the West. After years of public and behind-the-scenes diplomacy in which Britain played a large role, a deal surrounding handing over the Lockerbie bombers for trial and paying compensation to the victims’ families led to European states re-establishing relations and UN sanctions against Libya being lifted in 2003. Normalisation and lifting of unilateral U.S. sanctions did not occur until 2004 when, against the backdrop of the Afghan and Iraq wars, Qaddafi further agreed not to seek weapons of mass destruction and to cooperate in the War on Terror (Zoubir, 2006).

Libya was in a weakened state of transition from a pariah state to a full member of the international community when the Arab Spring struck in March 2011. Qaddafi responded to protests with violent crackdowns in which hundreds of Libyans were killed by the security forces, leading his newly-found Western friends to denounce him again. Qaddafi underestimated the national and international response to the violence (Buckley, 2012: 84), which undid years of public and secret diplomacy to rehabilitate his image. The Arab League, usually hesitant to endorse outside interference in Arab affairs, gave approval to military intervention (BBC News, 2011). He was denounced by the UN Security Council, which approved a no-fly zone over Libya. Before the vote and further after implementation began, the Arab League and Russia, China, India, Germany and South Africa expressed consternation with NATO’s interpretation of the UN resolution, (Buckley, 2012: 85). These objections in the UNSC and Arab League were too little, too late to save Qaddafi.

Internally, despite years of patronage, Libyan tribal leaders from the influential Warfalla and Zawiya tribes who controlled militias and the security services condemned Qaddafi for his violent crackdowns on protests in Tripoli and elsewhere (Mokhefi, 2011). With a UN resolution and the Arab League against him and support crumbling at home, they sensed the inevitability of his fall. The Libyan military was kept too weak to save him.

Qaddafi’s forces were quickly overcome by the NATO-led campaign, leading to his death in October 2011. In the end, no one but family and his own tribe stood in support of Muammar Qaddafi. He was not the ‘the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims.’

Syria under the Assads

Hafez al-Assad seized power in Syria after a 1970 coup—shortly after Qaddafi’s in Libya. As a Ba’athist and military officer, Hafez was largely influenced by the same Arab Nationalist and Nasserist sentiments and even agreed a short-lived 1971 proposal for a federation between Egypt, Libya and Syria (Hopwood, 1988: 55). Hafez al-Assad was a shrewd leader with great ability to maintain strong alliances at home and abroad, a trait passed on to his son, Bashar. Hafez was able to build an equal partnership with the USSR without becoming a satellite (ibid.: 76). The ability to balance alliances and power has kept the Assad regime in power for over forty years and is why it is still holding on despite the Arab Spring and strong international pressure.

The Assad’s are members of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’ia Islam and Hafez was the first Syrian president not from the Sunni majority. Though military officers, fellow Alawites and Ba’athists formed Hafez’s base, in power he legitimised and consolidated his rule by including elements of other ethnic and religious minority communities (including Christian Druze and Kurds) in shaping his government and improved the lot of the middle and lower classes. He co-opted and cooperated with other communist and left-leaning political parties. He pursued policy that consolidated all state power in his own hands, but went further than previous governments by legitimising his rule through inclusion of minorities (Ma’oz, 1986: 28-9).

While forming a strong base at home, Hafez al-Assad also forged international and regional alliances. According to Hopwood (1988: 72-7), Syria refused to become a satellite of the U.S. or USSR after throwing off colonial rule. However, the Soviets would sell arms to Syria with no strings attached, unlike NATO. As the USSR sought parity with the West, it curried favour in Syria before Assad took power by offering large public works projects and siding with Syria in the 1967 war as Syrian pilots were shot down flying Russian aircraft.

The relationship grew closer under Assad, with Moscow agreeing multi-million-dollar arms deals and sending thousands of military advisers. The two countries signed multiple diplomatic and trade agreements and Assad dealt with Moscow as an equal, not a subordinate. Syria fielded Soviet military tanks, missiles and other equipment, which were again replaced by Moscow after the disastrous 1973 war. By 1986, Syria had become Moscow’s largest Third World arms purchaser. Regardless of Hafez’s own opinion, America considered Syria a client of the Soviet Union (ibid.: 76).

In 1980, Syria—Arab, pluralist, Ba’athist-led, with a Sunni-majority—formed a counterintuitive alliance with Iran—a newly-formed Persian Islamic republic with a Shi’ite majority—in their war with Iraq. According to Hirschfeld (1986: 115-21), this was an act of shrewd political Realism by Assad. Despite being counter to its economic interest, Syria shut its border and blocked Iraq’s oil pipeline to the sea, costing Syria millions in oil transit fees. Hafez also turned down $2 billion from Saudi Arabia to reopen it (ibid.: 115). However, giving much-needed assistance to Iran in its early days greatly increased Syria’s influence with Khomeini and its control over Lebanon, where Iran was induced into influencing Shi’ites much more persuasively than Syria could alone. In the early years of the alliance, Syria was the dominant partner. Attacks by Iran-controlled Shi’ite terrorists in 1983-4 led to the withdrawal of Western troops from Lebanon, leaving Syria and Iran squarely in control until 2005. It also increased Syria’s independence and influence in the Middle East as a whole, as it was Syria that set its own course and became a fulcrum point deciding where the balance of regional power would lie. With one decision, Hafez had increased Syria’s influence and made it indispensable in the region (ibid.: 115-121).

This was the situation Bashar al-Assad inherited when his father died in 2000. The Soviet Union had collapsed, but Syria’s alliance carried on with Russia. Moscow, along with Tehran, continues to arm and assist Assad to this day. Nonetheless, there was early hope in 2011 that Bashar would ameliorate relations with the West. With the War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Bush administration seemed ready to roll up Middle Eastern dictators. In 2005, America approached Bashar with a ‘Libya-style’ deal similar to that offered in 2004 to Qaddafi: stop interfering in Lebanon, supporting terrorism and supporting the Iraq insurgency and receive normalised relations in return (Beeston and Blanford, 2005). They saw Bashar as vulnerable following a damning UN report blaming members of the Assad family for murdering popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Despite the blow to its influence when Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon and a Western-backed government coming to power there, Bashar al-Assad remained in power in Syria.

Internationally, Russia has stood firmly by Assad. Moscow has defended the regime before the UN and threatened to veto military action. Russia acted as Assad’s proxy in negotiations to avert a U.S. strike following the August 21st nerve agent attacks in Damascus and has offered counter-arguments to NATO assertions supporting intervention. It continues to supply Syria with arms and has even displayed a show of force by dispatching additional warships to its Syrian port at Tartus (Investor’s Business Daily, 2012). Stymying NATO efforts in Syria has reminded many of the bipolar era when Moscow was on par with Washington and has increased Russian influence and power in Syria and elsewhere.

Regionally, Iran also remains committed to Syria in the same manner Syria stood by Iran in 1980 (discussed above). There is evidence the elite Iranian Quds Force is assisting Assad in Syria (Reynolds, 2012). Lebanon-based Hezbollah, dependent upon Syria as its conduit of support from Iran (Martini et al, 2012: 3), is fighting alongside Assad’s forces. Tehran is committed to opposing NATO interests anywhere it can in the Middle East and has done so since its 1979 revolution, most recently by proxy in Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO troops or a Western-aligned government in Syria, paired with NATO’s presence elsewhere in the region, would leave Iran surrounded and isolated.

Internally, support from minority factions Hafez al-Assad cobbled together to legitimise his rule—military officers, Ba’athists, Alawites—have remained largely loyal to Bashar. There is fear by many that the tolerance cultivated by the Assad regime would disappear and the country would return to Sunni-dominated rule. There is already evidence of repression of minorities in rebel-held areas of the country (Martini et al, 2012: 5). The Syrian military, despite many defections to the rebels, remains largely loyal to Bashar. Many military officers have benefitted materially from supporting Assad over the years and they stand to lose everything and likely be branded as criminals if he falls. Other minority groups split between supporting the regime or the rebels are not enough of a factor to tip the balance to either side (ibid.: 3-5).

Unlike Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, the military and factions within Syria have not abandoned Assad, nor have allies Russia and Iran. These strong alliances have, thus far, kept Assad in power and their existence has checked NATO from taking military action.

NATO Liberalism and Realism in Libya

When considering military action against Qaddafi in Libya, NATO faced almost no opposition to intervention and was encouraged to act by initial Arab League support for a no-fly zone and Qaddafi’s loss of domestic support. The dearth of opposition and Qaddafi’s utter lack of allies meant that virtually nothing stood in the way of a NATO campaign there. Action in Libya was significantly easier to achieve.

There was no opposition to refute the case for a UN resolution. Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany abstained from voting and they and other states expressed reservations only after military action had begun, holding they had been duped by NATO as to the meaning and interpretation of the UN resolution, a criticism echoed in the Arab League (Buckley, 2012: 85-7). There was little opposition and little to lose in getting rid of a nuisance dictator murdering his own people, though arguably the feeling they had been tricked increased some states’ opposition to authorising UN action in Syria.

Conducting a Realist calculation, Libya presented no real threat to NATO interests or security since normalising relations in 2004, but some argued toppling Qaddafi would get rid of a troublesome dictator with a dirty past and grant access to high-quality Libyan crude oil, decidedly in NATO interests (Jenkins, 2011). However, NATO states predominantly used Liberal, values-based rhetoric regarding democracy, freedom and human rights to legitimise intervention. Both Realist and Liberal justifications were given to support the case for Libyan action.

NATO Liberalism and Realism in Syria

Syria presents a different case for NATO. The same Liberal arguments used in Libya are being used to justify acting in Syria. For Liberals, supporting democracy, freedom and human rights—values NATO states claim to support—for people facing violence to obtain them is right regardless of the power-political circumstances.

However, according to Coetzee (2012: 312), from a structural Realist perspective, supporting Liberal democracy and freedom during the Arab Spring has already been harmful to security interests—specifically NATO’s—as it has led to gains for militant Islamism in the region. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamist violence against U.S. targets in Libya, and Islamic militants with ties to al Qaeda operating in Syria are examples. It is the Realist calculation of balancing potential gains against potential losses that has held NATO back.

There are some gains to be made. Ending Assad rule would deprive Russia and Iran of an ally and a source of mutual support, reducing their regional influence. Iran would be isolated with the loss of its last large regional ally. Russia would lose a major trade partner, be booted out of the Middle East and may lose Tartus, its only port on the Mediterranean. These outcomes are in NATO’s interest.

Nonetheless, these gains are not worth the potential hazards. According to Martini et al (2012: 3), NATO and its allies have less at stake and Assad remaining in power does not greatly harm NATO interests. In deciding to intervene, it will face strong opposition and vetoes from Russia and likely China in the UNSC. Taking military action without a UN mandate will undermine the legitimacy of any NATO action. Iran already has fighters on the ground in Syria. Russia continues to arm Assad and has shown military support by dispatching more ‘gunboats’ to Tartus (discussed above). It is unclear how far Russia or Iran may go in defending Assad and their interests. Military action may increase violence in Syria and/or lead, at worst, to a larger, longer regional or international war. NATO does not want that and the gains are not worth risking it.

Assad has promised to confront foreign intervention with full military force. Though it recently signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to decommission its chemical weapons, Syria still has a sizeable stockpile and Assad has threatened to use them against any outside military intervention. If NATO were to intervene, it would still have to deal with post-war stability and reconstruction efforts and could face an Iraq-style insurgency, not to mention undertaking the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons itself.

Though it is a Machiavellian calculation, all that is at hazard for NATO is that the status quo will be maintained in Syria, though thousands of Syrians will continue to die and become refugees. NATO states may be seen as hypocrites for supporting Liberal ideas like democracy and human rights with military intervention in Libya but not in Syria. Russia, Iran and Assad may receive a boost in power and influence for having seen off the NATO challenge. However, none of these outcomes presents a dire, direct threat to NATO security or interests, while possibly enabling Islamists to increase their influence in a new Syria in the absence of Assad may (Martini et al, 2012: 5-7).


From a Realist perspective, for NATO the possible risks of intervention in Syria outweigh possible rewards. A comparison of the strengths of the allies—or lack thereof—of the regimes in Libya and Syria and what they stand to gain or lose in either case explains why NATO has chosen not to intervene in Syria as it did in Libya. The status quo will be maintained in Syria for now, while the jury is still out on Libya’s future.


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