NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen proudly declared this week that “What has happened in Libya sends a clear signal to autocratic regimes all over the world — you cannot neglect the will of the people.” That might have been true, had he not declared in the very same breath that NATO’s military intervention in Libya would under no circumstances be replicated in Syria. “I can completely rule that out,” he said. In light of that corollary, here is how autocratic regimes – and many ordinary people worldwide – will actually interpret the “clear signal” sent by events in Libya:
First, you’re much better off being friends with Russia and China than the West. Almost two decades ago, Muammar Qaddafi decided to start courting the West: He paid billions of dollars in compensation to victims of various terror attacks allegedly perpetrated by Libya, most notably the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, and dismantled his nuclear program. Syria, in contrast, repeatedly thumbed its nose at the West while courting Russia and China.
The result: Western countries sought and obtained a UN Security Council mandate to intervene militarily in Libya and ultimately toppled Qaddafi’s government. But Russia and China vetoed even far milder resolutions targeting Syria. And since the West refuses to act without a UN mandate, Syria is safe from any Western military threat.
Second, joining the radical Islamic camp led by Iran is a good investment. Libya posed no military threat whatsoever to the West, nor did it have any allies who did. But Syria is backed by Iran, with its proven willingness and ability to make mischief for Western interests in the Gulf and to foment terror overseas, most notably by means of Hezbollah. The West has repeatedly shown its reluctance to confront Tehran, even when, for instance, intelligence estimates deemed Iran responsible for more American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan than Sunni radicals were. And since intervention in Syria almost certainly would trigger conflict with Syria’s Iranian patron, the West isn’t interested.
Corollary: The West really is a paper tiger, just as Iran, Al-Qaida and other radical Islamists have always claimed. It’s perfectly willing to attack comparatively defenseless Libya, but avoids taking on countries capable of striking back.
Third, the West really does care about nothing but oil. If you discount oil – of which Libya has a lot and Syria very little – it’s hard to explain why the West intervened in Libya but not Syria. You certainly can’t explain it on humanitarian grounds; Bashar Assad’s regime has been killing, torturing and jailing its own citizens with Qaddafi-style abandon ever since Syria’s uprising began in March. And from a strategic perspective, Syria is by far the more important country: Libya has no strategic significance whatsoever for the West, whereas regime change in Syria would deprive Iran of a key ally and sever its land bridge to Hezbollah.
If the West doesn’t understand that this is how much of the world will interpret its behavior, that is deeply disturbing. And if it knows about it, but doesn’t care , that is even more disturbing.