By Matthew M. Reed
Events in Syria and Libya are going in different directions but may soon converge, for better or worse. Bashar al Assad of Syria began Ramadan with an all-out assault. Hundreds have died since August 1, as government forces deploy heavy armor and seapower against civilians. Assad’s bloody crackdown—comparable only to Qaddafi’s in scope and mechanization—is now being openly condemned by the international community. Ambassadors have been recalled, major powers want Assad to step down, the EU is considering punishing sanctions, and the UN Human Rights Commission may soon submit a list of crimes against humanity. All these moves point in one direction: the regime’s isolation will match the severity of violence.
Meanwhile, events in Libya are far more encouraging even though rebels are paying a steep price for their good fortune. In recent weeks they’ve captured major cities of strategic importance, including Zawiya and Gharyan. Both towns straddle roads through which supplies pass to Qaddafi’s forces in Tripoli. There’s no more talk of a stalemate with NATO pounding targets and rebels surrounding the capital. It’s easy to imagine the Battle of Tripoli getting underway soon, or—better yet—Qaddafi’s flight from the capital, which would prevent bloodshed.
Syria’s darkest days are ahead of her, no doubt, while Libyans are just now seeing a light flicker at the end of their tunnel. So how might events in Libya and Syria inform each other? Consider this: Libya’s civil war is quite possibly reaching an “endgame” stage, whereby Tripoli falls and Qaddafi is removed. NATO and the US specifically will naturally step back and calculate the cost and merits of their intervention once Qaddafi is gone. Micah Zenko commented on these costs last week:
The cost of military operations is difficult to determine, since the Pentagon has not been forthcoming regarding Libya. Nevertheless, five data points are available either from official releases or media leaks that can be used to extrapolate current expenditures: March 30, $550 million; April 11, $608 million; Mid-May, $664 million; June 3, $714 million; and June 30: $820 million. It is unclear if these numbers include replacing known aircraft loses, including the crashes of an F-15 on March 21 (roughly $30 million) and a MQ-8 Fire Scout on June 21 ($9 million). However, it can be assumed that U.S. military operations costs in Libya per month are between $60-$80 million, with total current costs around $1 billion.
The cost of humanitarian aid is easier to determine thanks to the weekly “Libya: Disaster Response Updates,” which the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has published since late February. The latest update lists the total USAID and State Department humanitarian funding at $84 million.
Finally, the amount of (overt) non-lethal assistance has remained $25 million since the April 26 presidential memorandum, which authorized the “drawdown of nonlethal commodities and services from the inventory and resources of any agency of the United States Government… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in Libya.” It is unclear if all of this non-lethal assistance has been dispersed. On May 10, the State Department announced that one shipment of halal meals, medical supplies, uniforms, boots, and tents had been made, with a second shipment arriving in Benghazi on June 17.
Therefore, based on the available data, the total direct expenditures of America’s role in Libya is approximately $1.1 billion and counting. Assuredly, there are also covert funds being dispersed (hopefully, with close congressional oversight), and there will be equipment and munitions replacement costs that require additional future funds. In addition, it is impossible to calculate what U.S. personnel and resources will be needed to help stabilize and rebuild Libya after the civil war ends.
“$1.1 billion and counting.” Double that. Triple that number even. And measure the money and physical risk against the gains. For years, Qaddafi supported terrorism against the US and Europe. At home, he held millions of his countrymen captive, establishing a reputation over four decades as a human rights violator with few peers. I recommend Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men if you want an intimate and haunting portrait of Qaddafi’s Orwellian rule. Also, consider this statistic: “10-20 percent of the population was engaged in surveillance for the [Libyan] Government,” as of 2005, according to the State Department. Qaddafi was a hazard to all even though he was not a direct threat to the United States.
So where does Syria fit in? There’s a very good chance NATO and the US will holster their guns at about the same time Damascus lurches toward the abyss. A full-blown humanitarian crisis is already underway but it could gain even more steam as the regime targets certain religious groups. Remember too that the stakes are higher in Syria. For decades the regime has acted as Iran’s right-hand, affording it an unnaturally long reach into Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, where it provides cash and arms to Hamas and Hizballah. Should Assad fall, Tehran will lose a valuable appendage. There are very few options for hurting Iranian interests directly. And so a vulnerable Assad is a target with unique appeal.
You can see where this is going. If Qaddafi falls soon, NATO’s intervention will be branded a success—and a cheap one at that. Given that the stakes are higher in Syria and action there could save lives and sever one of Iran’s major arteries, the “Libyan solution” may indeed be on the table sooner than some think. Admittedly, the questions surrounding Syria are bigger and the situation in Libya remains unresolved. For one, Syrian revolutionaries refuse to establish a formal structure for their uprising; there remains no leadership or leader and with good reason—Assad would kill whoever spoke loudest. The international community is thus left wondering who they would intervene on behalf of.
The debate will start as soon as Qaddafi is gone. Cost-benefit analysis won’t be the only factor at play either. The debate will also be affected by upcoming American elections. Presidential hopefuls like Romney and Bachmann have already criticized President Obama for waiting too long to condemn Assad. Condemnation might not be enough in this case, for Obama or his rivals. Let me be clear: I’m not arguing for military intervention in Syria. But I do believe more and more people will because the stakes there are so high and the Libyan example suggests the costs could be quite low. If the US and NATO spent $10 billion or $20 billion on a similar mission in Syria, would it be worth it? You tell me.