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Tobias Ellwood MP: Do not expect Syria to follow in the footsteps of Libya


Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East.

Libya is now the first Arab Spring country to taste freedom by overthrowing a regime whose dictator had responded to the popular uprising with a magnitude of force. It is too simplistic to say, as some commentators have suggested, that Libya presents a new "intervention lite" blueprint on how to overthrow a tyrant, but much as international media attention will now shift to Syria, there are some big differences which suggest the Libyan experience is unlikely to be so easily repeated.

Firstly, the build up of regional support, international diplomatic pressure and, critically, China and Russia's acquiescence to UN-endorsed NATO military intervention in Libya. Both China and Russia maintain strong ties with Syria and are likely to veto any UN resolution that authorises the use of outside force.

Secondly, the formation in Libya of a recognised opposition forum (the National Transitional Council) able to unite a disparate group of challenging voices and act as the principle co-ordinator for regime change offers an indication to the West as to what the successor power structure might look like. In Syria, however, there is no such transition council or opposition figure to rally around - deliberately it seems to ensure anti-regime rallies are organised at grass root level rather than by a central body which would be swiftly removed.

Thirdly, the Libyan rebels may have lacked fighting skills but not access to arms, nor the bravery or resolve to pursue their cause. As recent footage of rebel forces in action shows, the mass use of un-aimed suppressive fire from the hip (the Beirut fire position) is extremely inefficient but eventually brings results. In Syria, the military retain the upper hand, but if senior military start to defect this could change.

Finally, NATO airpower (even without the US) may be supreme, but it is boots on the ground that secure victory. This was achieved by most of the 30 principle Libyan tribes parking old grievances, in order to rally around the single agenda of removing Gaddafi. Only his own tribe (of the same name) remains unconditionally loyal, resulting in stubborn pockets of resistance such as in Sirte. In Syria, however, the ethnic makeup is more fundamental, and the abrupt removal of the minority ruling Alawites (a sect of Shia Islam) could trigger a civil war with the majority Sunnis, Kurds, Christians and Druze.

China and Russia, who both have strong economic links with Syria, are aware of these observations and are reluctant to act. If Assad goes, what would follow? They point out that Libya is not yet out of the woods. Despite the liberation of Tripoli, so long as Gaddafi is alive, his forces may now become the insurgents as the rebels become the new state, thus delaying steps towards stability and security. And with a country awash with light weaponry and hastily formed tribal militias, all seeking a slice of post Gaddafi power, maintaining security is likely to be a major headache. In addition, replacing a single family/single party rule and oversized state-run system with an acceptable form of pro- Islamic democracy is no walk in the park. Assad therefore might (correctly) deduce that there is presently no military threat, and a popular uprising is unlikely so long as he remains in favour with his senior military commanders, mosque clerics, the middle-classes and business leaders.

So, if military intervention is ruled out, then regime change must be brought about through diplomatic pressure, sanctions and indigenous revolution led initially from a transition council in exile. Diplomatic pressure must come from influential countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with the rest if the world dropping their recognition of the Assad regime. With Europe receiving almost 90% of Syria's oil exports, there is still plenty of scope to leverage tougher sanctions. One possibility is the use of Arab media such as Al Jazeera (already critical of Assad) to support an exiled Syrian Transition Council which can begin the difficult debate about what a post-Assad Syria might look like, and improve coordination of a home-grown revolution.

Just as with Libya, international influence could play a decisive role in determining Syria's future.


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