When Muammar Qaddafi’s regime turned its guns on protesters, European leaders declared that he’d lost his legitimacy to rule, imposed sanctions, and eventually sent warplanes to bomb him out of office.
As the death toll from Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown in Syria passes 500, with 1,000 arrests in the last two days alone, European leaders have limited themselves to condemnations.
The contrasting treatment reflects differences in how the two leaders exercise domestic power, and the way their countries fit into the regional patterns of politics and religion. Whereas Qaddafi was an isolated figure, Assad’s Syria has closer ties to other countries and is a fulcrum in numerous conflicts. And while Qaddafi’s family ran Libya, Assad’s regime is opaque with several centers of power.
“Different leaders, different systems, different context, different consequences,” said Ettore Greco, director of the International Affairs Institute in Rome in a telephone interview. “It’s correct for the Europeans to calibrate their response to each crisis.”
France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain last week summoned the Syrian ambassadors in their countries to protest the violent crackdowns. The Libyan ambassador was ordered to leave the U.K. on May 1, after crowds attacked the British Embassy in Tripoli in retaliation for the bombing raid that killed Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Arab and three of his grandchildren.
‘Exception Not Rule’
French President Nicolas Sarkozy told L’Express magazine that armed intervention “must be the exception, it can’t be the rule.” In an interview published yesterday, Sarkozy said sanctions will be effective against Syria, while in Libya there was no alternative to military action.
Only Germany among the main European powers has called for immediate sanctions on Syria, with Britain and France threatening that they may follow if the violence persists. None of them have questioned the legitimacy of Assad’s rule.
The nationwide death toll since mid-March is more than 550, Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights says.
The air forces of France, Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden have been bombing Qaddafi’s troops and military installations for six weeks to prevent his army from attacking civilians. They have all called for Qaddafi’s departure and are in contact with an umbrella group representing rebel forces.
“The crimes of the Syrian regime are on the same level as the crimes in Libya,” Henri Guaino, an adviser to Sarkozy, said in an interview with RMC Radio. “Qaddafi’s regime was one of folly. Syria is a very severe dictatorship, but it’s also a complex society with many minorities.”
Qaddafi had no friends among the Arab League, which supported the no-fly zone and voted to expel Libya. The 22- member League hasn’t condemned the Syrian repression.
Russia and China abstained during the UN Security Council’s vote on resolution 1973, which authorized the military action in Libya, allowing it to pass. They’ve blocked European and U.S. efforts to condemn Syria, saying it amounts to interference in domestic matters.
“Legitimacy passes through the UN, and European initiatives are being blocked by the Russians, who feel they were taken for a ride” on the Libya resolution, said Zaki Laidi, a research director at Paris-based Sciences-Po University. Russia says the NATO attacks have exceeded the boundaries of the UN mandate.
Libya’s political isolation meant that beyond a flow of refugees, the fall of Qaddafi’s regime doesn’t risk destabilizing his neighbours. That’s not the case with Syria.
“Syria is a linchpin for a lot of issues in the region,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor at Washington-based National Defense University. “Syria is a key player in the peace process. It is also a close ally of Iran. It is a vital player in the politics of Lebanon. It is an important neighbor to Turkey and Jordan. It is part of the Kurdish equation. It is an important player in the situation in Iraq.”
Lebanon, which sits on the Security Council until the end of this year, voted for the resolution authorizing force against Libya. It won’t support a condemnation of Syria, which occupied parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and maintains close ties to several Lebanese political parties.
Even Israel, which fought wars against Syria in 1948, 1967 and 1973, and still occupies Syrian territory, doesn’t necessarily want Assad to fall, says Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “They prefer the guys they know,” Perthes said.
Signaling that the U.S. may share that view, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- whose department classifies Assad as a supporter of terrorism -- cited his identity as a “reformer” to explain why measures taken by the U.S. and its allies in Libya won’t be repeated in Syria.
Unlike oil-rich Libya, Syria has few overseas investments, making it less sensitive to asset freezes and other financial sanctions.
“Sanctions aren’t the silver bullet that some people think they are,” said Science-Po’s Laidi. “They take time to put in place and don’t always work. Look at Iran,” which hasn’t stopped its nuclear program despite several rounds of UN sanctions dating back to 2006.
Part of the different treatment is simply logistical, says the IAI’s Greco. “Libyan rebels were able to seize part of the country and set up a base and institutions,” he said. “In Syria, there’s no such unified opposition, no military front.”
In addition, pushing out Assad wouldn’t necessarily end the regime, whose support is based on the Ba’ath party and the Alawite minority, which rules a Sunni majority
“In this confused situation, Bashar could even turn out to be a moderating force within the regime,” Greco said. “He may not, but no one knows. That’s why there’s good reason for showing some caution.”