Lessons From Libya: How Not to Ruin Syria



In the aftermath of the U.S.-led air and missile strikes on Syria for the April incident in which Bashar al-Assad’s government allegedly used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, calls are growing for the Trump administration to deepen U.S. military involvement for the explicit purpose of ousting Assad.  Those pundits and politicians who advocate a regime-change war should pause and reflect on the results of Washington’s last crusade to overthrow a repressive secular dictator.  In 2011, the United States and several NATO allies conducted a ferocious air campaign against the forces of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi.  Although the official justification for that mission was to prevent Qaddafi from slaughtering innocent civilians, the Western intervention helped rebel forces achieve victory.  In reality, regime change was the West’s primary motive all along.

Despite the expectations of U.S. and European officials that post-Qaddafi Libya would develop into a stable, democratic country, the results have been very different.  Libya quickly descended into a violent, multisided struggle among lawless militias, most of which are strongly Islamist.  The extent of the chaos is reminiscent of the tragic situation in Somalia since the beginning of the 1990’s.  Nearly a million refugees have tried to flee Libya’s turmoil, with tens of thousands perishing in the attempt.  A misguided Western strategy to overthrow Assad could create a similarly horrific outcome in Syria.  U.S. and allied meddling already has had a tragic impact, prolonging the fighting and producing a major refugee crisis that is heightening ethnic tensions in Europe.

Obama-administration officials, hawkish members of Congress, and prominent media figures all exuded optimism about Libya’s future as Western-backed insurgents overthrew Qaddafi in the fall of 2011.  President Obama clearly believed that the new Libya would be a decided improvement on Qaddafi’s rule.  “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant,” the President stated in August of that year.  “The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”  Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were equally gratified and upbeat.  “The end of the Gadhafi regime is a victory for the Libyan people and for the broader cause of freedom in the Middle East and throughout the world,” they concluded.  The two senators, along with colleagues Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), proclaimed during a visit to “liberated” Tripoli that the rebels had “inspired the world.”

In his remarks regarding Qaddafi’s torture and execution at the hands of rebels in October, Obama asserted that “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted” from Libya.”  He urged the citizens of that country to “build an inclusive and tolerant and democratic Libya that stands as the ultimate rebuke” to the former oppressor.  Ivo H. Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, and Admiral James Stavridis were equally euphoric.  Describing the intervention as “an extraordinary job, well done,” they called it “an historic victory for the people of Libya who, with NATO’s help, transformed their country from an international pariah into a nation with the potential to become a productive partner with the West.”  Much of the American foreign policy community and news media chimed in about the glorious outcome of the U.S.-NATO intervention.  Princeton University Prof. Anne Marie Slaughter, an outspoken advocate of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine—the alleged obligation of the United States and all decent powers to shield or rescue innocent civilians from brutal tyrants—boasted that skeptics of the Libya intervention were “proved badly wrong.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof gushed about how the people he encountered in Libya loved America.

Americans are not often heroes in the Arab world, but as nonstop celebrations unfold here in the Libyan capital I keep running into ordinary people who learn where I’m from and then fervently repeat variants of the same phrase: “Thank you, America!”

Although—unlike some supporters of the intervention—Kristof at least made the pro forma admission that things still could go wrong, he saw the Libya intervention as an attractive model for future missions.  “[T]o me Libya is a reminder that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes.”  The Libyans, Kristof contended, “overwhelmingly favored our multilateral military intervention.”

There were only a few dissenting voices.  Journalist Glenn Greenwald expressed his astonishment and dismay at the lack of realism or even minimal skepticism on the part of policymakers.

I’m genuinely astounded at the pervasive willingness to view what has happened in Libya as some sort of grand triumph even though virtually none of the information needed to make that assessment is known yet, including: how many civilians have died, how much more bloodshed will there be, what will be needed to stabilize that country and, most of all, what type of regime will replace (Moammar) Gadhafi?

Washington’s hopes for an orderly transition to democracy in Libya proved as illusory as they had been in Iraq when the United States went to war to remove Saddam Hussein.  Just weeks after Qaddafi’s fall, the insurgents began to fragment, largely along tribal and regional lines.  The western tribes started to coalesce around a power center in Tripoli, whereas the eastern tribes generally supported a rival faction headquartered in Benghazi.  More generalized disorder characterized the southern portion of Libya.

The growing turmoil inside Libya quickly spilled over into neighboring countries.  The impact was most evident in Mali, where fighting broke out between ethnic Tuaregs, many of whom had served in Qaddafi’s security forces, and government troops.  That pressure, in turn, led Mali’s military to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government.  Apologists for the Libya intervention insist that factors other than Qaddafi’s fall played a role in Mali’s turmoil.  True enough, but the Libyan chaos and the migration of fighters and weapons from that country were also crucial factors, however much supporters of the Obama administration’s regime-change war are reluctant to acknowledge that reality.  It was more than a little ironic that the U.S.-NATO military intervention to bring regime change and democracy to Libya ended up undermining an existing, albeit fragile, democratic system in Mali.  Fighting among the Tuaregs and several other, mainly Islamist, factions still continued in late 2017 and early 2018.

Matters were even worse inside Libya.  Instead of being allied with fledgling democrats, the United States found herself in an increasingly uncomfortable association with tribal militias—many of which were decidedly Islamist.  The perils of trying to cooperate with such factions became all too apparent on September 11, 2012, when an extremist militia attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that by the end of 2016, there were nearly 400,000 internally displaced Libyans.  That was in addition to the nearly one million refugees who had fled the country entirely—some 400,000 in 2016 alone.  Moreover, the pace of that desperate migration to Europe had tripled since 2013.  In other words, the situation was deteriorating, not improving.  The massive refugee flow into Europe has continued unabated, and it is causing serious societal tensions among some of Washington’s most important strategic allies—yet another inadvertent consequence of the Libya intervention.

HRW’s 2017 report on the overall situation was uniformly depressing, and it underscored how the West’s expectations about post-Qaddafi Libya have become a mockery:

The United Nations-backed, internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) struggled in 2016 to assert itself in Tripoli, as two authorities—one also based in Tripoli and another in eastern Libya [dominated by former Qaddafi general and CIA asset Khalifa Haftar]—continued to compete for legitimacy and control over resources and infrastructure.


Forces aligned with all governments and dozens of militias continued to clash, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis with close to half a million internally displaced people.  The civilian population struggled to gain access to basic services such as healthcare, fuel, and electricity.  Militias and armed forces affiliated with the two governments engaged in arbitrary detentions, torture, unlawful killings, indiscriminate attacks, abductions, and forcible disappearances.  Criminal gangs and militias abducted politicians, journalists, and civilians—including children—for political and monetary gain.

New York Times reporter Mark Landler concludes that Libya “has descended into a state of Mad Max-like anarchy.”  Post-Qaddafi Libya is now “a seedbed for militancy that has spread west and south across Africa.”   Beyond those problems, the country has “become the most important Islamic State stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq,” and sends out “waves of desperate migrants across the Mediterranean, where they drown in capsized vessels.”

Unfortunately, regime-change activists are pushing the United States down the same policy path in Syria.  Largely because Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is closely allied with Iran, the United States and other Western powers have sought to undermine his regime for years.  Indeed, they helped foster the demonstrations against Assad that erupted in early 2011.  It soon became evident that their objective, as in Libya and earlier in Iraq, was full-scale regime change.

With the prodding of the United States and her allies, the U.N. Security Council adopted in 2012 a statement whose language is telling.  It called for “a transition to a democratic, plural political system . . . including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian Government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.”  There was a yawning chasm between such idealistic sentiments and the political realities in Syria.  In particular, the notion that the ever-stronger jihadist factions within the insurgency would be interested in creating a “democratic, plural, political system” was laughable.

Yet that goal embodied official Obama-administration policy.  In her 2014 book Hard Choices, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recalled,

I welcomed Kofi’s [U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s] plan to pave the way for a democratic transition and a “post-Assad future.”  The United States shared his goal of a democratic, pluralistic Syria that would uphold the rule of law and respect the universal rights of all its people and every group, regardless of ethnicity, sect or gender.

Such assumptions, if sincerely held, suggested that U.S. officials were operating in their own fantasy world.  Neither Syria nor most other countries in the authoritarian, religiously intolerant, and notoriously misogynistic Middle East were about to embrace political systems based on such pluralistic Western values.

But Washington’s sad quest for Syrian “moderates” has continued.  As the Syrian civil war intensified in 2012 and 2013, so too did American praise for the rebel cause.  Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) met with representatives of the Free Syria Army, at the time the principal opposition group.  “If America still stands for the cause of oppressed people who are fighting for their freedom, and justice, and deliverance from tyranny, we cannot abandon the people of Syria,” they stated.  “We cannot shirk our responsibility to lead.  Our deepest values and interests compel us to act in Syria, and we must do so before it is too late.”

When ISIS emerged as a major player and occupied large swaths of territory in northern and eastern Syria, Washington redoubled its search for a viable moderate alternative both to that group and to Assad.  At times, that search took on a desperate quality that further diluted the U.S. foreign-policy establishment’s definition of what constituted a “moderate.”  Secretary of State John Kerry (Clinton’s successor) and other officials even tried to portray Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist militia strongly backed by Saudi Arabia, as part of a moderate coalition.  But that approach was restrained compared with the tack that former CIA Director David Petraeus adopted.  Petraeus argued that Washington should work to “peel away” moderates from Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.  He believed they could be induced to fight both ISIS and Assad.

Along with the continuing attempt to identify elusive moderates within existing rebel militias, the administration sought to create its own version of a moderate armed faction.  In June 2014, Obama asked Congress to authorize $500 million to recruit, vet, and train an entirely new fighting force.  Congress quickly complied, and officials spent all of those funds over the next 14 months.

The administration’s program proved to be a total flop.  Contrary to expectations that the Pentagon’s new train-and-equip venture would produce thousands of loyal fighters for a democratic Syria, there were only 54 graduates.  And by September 2015, administration officials had to tell the Senate that only “four or five” fighters remained in the field.

Meanwhile, the dominance that Jabhat al-Nusra and radical Islamist allies exercised over the anti-Assad insurgency grew steadily.  Journalist Gareth Porter noted that “every armed anti-Assad organization unit in [two key] provinces is engaged in a military system controlled by Nusra.  All of them fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it.”

There is little doubt that al-Nusra was often the dominant player in these arrangements.  For example, one of the allegedly moderate groups Washington backed was the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF).  The Obama administration even supplied the SRF with TOW antitank missiles.  When a combined force of Nusra and non-jihadi forces captured a major Syrian army base at Wadi al-Deif in December 2014, the power relationship among the various groups soon became quite clear.  Only Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were allowed to enter the base.  The SRF and other less-radical types were excluded.

Yet that treatment was relatively mild compared to what al-Nusra administered to another U.S.-supported group, Harakat Hazm, in April 2015.  Before a campaign was launched against the government-held Idlib province, Nusra forced Harakat Hazm to disband.  The militants then confiscated all of the TOW missiles Washington had given to the group.

Yet both the Obama and Trump administrations have deployed U.S. Special Forces as “advisors” to assist rebel groups—mostly the secessionist Kurds in northern Iraq, but some of the Arab militias as well.  By early 2018, more than 2,000 American military personnel were operating in Syria.  Washington also has launched punitive air and missile assaults against Syrian government forces and bases, ostensibly in retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.  The Western attacks weaken his forces and benefit the insurgents.

Washington is playing a very dangerous and unrealistic game.  Nusra renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in mid-2016 and supposedly broke ties with Al Qaeda.  In early 2017, it merged with a smaller group to create a new entity, Tahrir al-Sham.  But such maneuvers do not alter the group’s extreme Islamist beliefs, nor do they reduce the outsized degree of power that it exercises within the insurgency.

Russia’s military intervention on Assad’s behalf beginning in 2015 may have the unintended effect of sparing the United States responsibility for creating another Libya-style debacle.  With Russian assistance, the Syrian regime has driven back the insurgents on multiple fronts.  A crucial government success came in December 2016, when Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, expelled rebel units from Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city and a key strategic asset.  Assad now seems poised on the brink of victory throughout the country.

Americans might well breathe a sigh of relief at that prospect.  Assad is a corrupt and brutal ruler, but the evidence indicates that his opponents are even worse.  The assumption that U.S. officials and opinion leaders have embraced—that a post-Assad government would create a united, democratic Syria—is a dangerous fantasy.  Given the bitter divisions between the majority Sunnis and Assad’s coalition of religious minorities (Alawite, Christian, and Druze), long-term prospects for Syrian unity, except under strongman rule, are not favorable.  Worse, a Sunni-imposed unity would almost certainly empower extreme Islamists.  U.S. leaders succumbed to their own illusions about Libya and created a catastrophe.  They apparently learned nothing from that experience, since they have tried to wage another regime-change war in Syria, despite the likelihood of similar unpalatable results.  The Trump administration should seize a belated opportunity to internalize the appropriate lessons from the Libya fiasco.



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