Looking back at Libya whilst thinking of Syria – 2 March 2012

A very brief post about Libya and the current situation in Syria. Just some thoughts:

We should be able to agree that the Syrian government’s response to the uprising are unfortunate in the extreme, and we can certainly concur with David Cameron’s comments about this in Brussels this morning. About Syria. Not him riding a knackered old police horse. Only in Britain.

And whilst we can get rightly huffy about the approach taken by the Russian, Chinese and Cuban governments on this issue (after all, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the widespread killings are at the very least unfortunate, and mostly wrong) we don’t necessarily have to conclude that these governments have lost the plot.

The reason why? Well, the UN resolutions covering our friend Gaddafi (he who wasn’t our friend, then was, then wasn’t… ) were not exactly honoured to the letter. It is alleged that there was more assistance given, in terms of materials and support, than was strictly allowed. And it is alleged to be the case that those in the coalition of the dwindling military capabilities (as we shall now be known) didn’t know an awful lot about those who were going to replace Gaddafi. A punt in the dark, as one keen eyed observer noted to me. So, it is not entirely irrational for Russians, Chinese and Cubans to question (once again) the wisdom of a bid through the UN which seems so very sure of itself. First one to write an article questioning the long-term viability of the UN wins a small Belgian bun.

There are other reasons why we might want to huff and puff at Syria, but not necessarily want to try and blow the House of Assad down…

* Libya turned out to have around 20,000 in their armed forces, less than half the figure originally suspected or quoted in various sources. Whilst this fight wasn’t a massive stretch for our brave boys in the sky, it seemed pretty tricky for those we supported on the ground. The forces of the US and west are clearly more competent but Syria doesn’t have an armed force of 50,000 deliberately semi-organised Libyans… no, there’s about 300,000 reasonably well organised Syrians in their armed forces with a number of reservists in addition (that I couldn’t find numbers for that I was happy to trust). I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy a fight with an armed force of 300k.

* The Syrians have invested heavily in air defence recently, mostly because they don’t fancy being clobbered by the very capable Israelis  without putting up a big fight about it, and as a result a re-run of the Libya campaign would be significantly difficult, and certainly no-one who liked the RAF or Fleet Air Arm would possibly suggest that this was something they ought to be engaging in. Definitely one to be left to someone else. Similarly, this really quite good air defence system supplied by one of the countries who doesn’t seem keen on the UN route also makes humanitarian aid by the air also a bit very tricky, unless the Syrian authorities are in favour of it.

* The final factor is that the Syrian military do have some form we can point to, albeit a long time ago. In 1982 the ‘events in Hama’ as the regime puts it, saw the Islamic uprising in the city of Hama somewhat effectively put down. The Syrian government suggested 10,000 civilians dead, but Robert Fisk puts it at 20,000 and the various humanitarian organisations get the figure up to 40,000. So, this was not a pussy-footing about crackdown, this was a full monty of a crackdown, and it does rather suggest a certain determination to retain control, and a certain skill in doing so. Things that should also cause us pause for thought.

So, don’t read me wrong. I’m not condoning what’s going on, nor am I siding with the three countries who are making the UN look silly. But I do think that we cannot go down the Libya Mk2 route, because this seems very different to me, and what is more the Syrian leadership will have looked at Libyan example and thought ‘it ain’t happening to us’, and no-one can blame them for that assessment. It’s time for those who can think outside of the box to shine.

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