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Syria and Libya won’t be the same

William Miller | Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The case of Syria initially seems to have many parallels with Libya — an autocratic regime, in power for decades, teetering on the brink. As in Libya, the Assad regime is known for brutality, as it has demonstrated in recent crackdowns against the Syrian people. Assad’s approach mirrors that taken by Colonel Qaddafi, who preferred violent repression to any sort of reform. In addition, the Syrian regime is heavily dependent on oil revenues, which will be cut off in December when a regime of international sanctions goes into effect. This was also the case in Libya, where the lack of oil revenues ultimately undermined Qaddafi’s ability to finance his repression.

Unfortunately, the cases also bear some major dissimilarity. First, the international community is much less likely to intervene militarily, as it did in Libya with the implementation of a no-fly zone. This is due to several factors, most notably the fact that both China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, are unlikely to support such a measure. Russia relies on access to a Mediterranean naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus and is also one of Syria’s largest arms suppliers. China, likewise, is a major supplier of arms to Syria, and both China and Russia would be loath to see a major customer disappear.

Second, the Syrian military is much stronger than the Libyan military was at the beginning of its revolution. Syria’s army is four times the size of Libya’s, its military spending is considerably higher and the armed forces are generally better equipped than their counterparts in Libya. This is especially problematic since the military continues to place its support firmly behind the Assad regime, which was not the case in Libya. Military commanders are unlikely to jump ship until the rebels score some major successes, but these successes are much more difficult to achieve given the strength of the Syrian military.

Third, Syria is much smaller than Libya, meaning that it is harder for the rebels to concentrate before regime forces are able to attack. In Libya, Benghazi served as a critical base from which rebels could organize. On one hand, since the revolution was really centered in the east, it also gave the rebels a natural base of support to rely on when beginning their resistance. Protests in Syria, on the other hand, have been spread throughout the country, from Daraa in the south to Homs in the center to Al Hasakah in the north. While this means that the Syrian military has to respond to multiple threats, it also makes it much more difficult for the rebels to organize the critical mass of fighters necessary to put up a major fight against regime forces.

Given these factors, it will be much more difficult for Syria’s revolutionaries to oust the Assad regime from power. This is not to say that Assad will last forever — most autocratic regimes eventually fall. However, comparing the situation in Syria to the one in Libya highlights several major obstacles that demonstrators in Syria will need to overcome. Barring major changes on the ground, it seems likely that Assad will be able to weather this storm just as his father did before him.

William Miller is a sophomore majoring in Arabic and political science. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.