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Actions vs. Words: The US Approaches to Libya and Syria

The events of 2011 collectively known as the Arab Spring provide two notable studies of how effective wars of choice can be. While not every Arab revolution a decade ago led to violent conflict, two countries experienced civil wars in which the United States and its fellow NATO members believed they had a stake in the outcome: Libya and Syria. Comparing these two cases can provide lessons for outside intervention in intrastate conflicts.

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In Libya, the U.S. led a coalition that halted Muammar Qaddafi’s assault on Libyans who challenged his dictatorial regime; the operation later expanded to include the overthrow of Qaddafi. It is important to note that the death of Qaddafi did not immediately lead to prolonged conflict in Libya. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution pointed out in 2016, the civil war between the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, (distinct from the rebellion against Qaddafi) did not begin until 2014. The unrest symbolized (in many American eyes) by the Benghazi attack of 2012 did not constitute an all-out war; it was never guaranteed that the country would experience a full-fledged war within its borders.

Indeed, Libya in this regard contrasts with Iraq in 2003, where even a large army occupying the country (more than 157,000 U.S. personnel in 2005, plus allied forces) after the ouster of its dictator was inadequate to stabilize the country, and violence began almost immediately after Saddam Hussein fell. Of course, there are other differences: the coalition that invaded Iraq did so on faulty pretenses about weapons of mass destruction, while events in Libya in 2011 indicated government forces were preparing to massacre those who defied its dictator’s rule.. Saddam had not carried out such a massacre since 1991, when he slaughtered Kurds and Shia who (with the encouragement of U.S. President George H.W. Bush) rose up against him in the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War. For all the difficulties Libya has undergone in the last decade, they do not mean the overthrow of Qaddafi was uncalled for.

President Barack Obama’s approach to Syria since 2011 has parallels with Bush’s approach to post-Gulf War Iraq two decades earlier. Like Bush calling for “the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside,” Obama proclaimed “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Neither president subsequently used American power to make his hope a reality. Not even Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in 2013 was enough to make Obama use U.S. military force as punishment.

The results have been catastrophic. Within a year, the Islamic State (IS) had captured large portions of Iraq and Syria, and was on the verge of massacring Iraq’s Yazidi minority before Obama ordered airstrikes to save them. The flow of more than one million Syrians into Europe has empowered reactionary political movements on both sides of the Atlantic. And in June 2021, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated Syria’s death toll after a decade of conflict at 606,000.

There are two important lessons to draw from these conflicts. First, if a country believes its interests are significantly at stake to warrant intervention in another country’s internal conflict, it is best to get involved early. In Libya, less than a month passed between the first fighting between pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces and the start of NATO airstrikes. In Syria, it was not until five months into the conflict that Obama even called for Assad to step down, much less attempted to force him out.

Early intervention need not take a military form; indeed, if there is a chance to resolve a conflict diplomatically, that is preferable to armed force. However, it should be noted that if the regime the intervener is trying to influence is a staunchly authoritarian one, unwilling to accept any challenge to its rule from its people – the case in both Libya and Syria – the intervener should not have too much faith in diplomacy working. In Syria, the deal Obama negotiated to remove Assad’s chemical weapons from the battlefield failed, as Assad has repeatedly used such weapons since.

The second lesson is that an intervening power should not rely too heavily on rhetoric. If an outside power declares that it would like to see a conflict end in a particular way, it ought to back up its statements with the use of its power. In the case of Syria, Obama in 2012 could have embraced a proposal by members of his administration to arm and train rebel groups. Such a policy would have shown the world that the President’s hopes were not simply empty words. It would have given the Free Syrian Army a better chance of beating back Assad’s assaults and enduring as a viable alternative to Assad. Instead, IS emerged to play that role.

The sooner the U.S. learns these lessons, the better. While President Joseph Biden may wish to move beyond two decades of war in the greater Middle East, he should contemplate how he might react if another conflict in the region led to a humanitarian disaster. The man he served as Vice President provides him with two models: act quickly and risk an adverse outcome, or decline to act and witness even worse.


Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.
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