This week, Washington has been aflutter over the recent use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and President Obama’s desired response-“limited military strikes”-to the incident. The Syrian conflict, which has lasted for over two years, has claimed approximately 110,000 lives.
To start, the sheer size of the conflict in Syria is far greater than in Libya. Ian Black of The Guardian wrote the following in January about the amount of fatalities in the Libyan conflict:
Libya’s new government has drastically reduced its estimate of the number of people who were killed in the revolution against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, concluding that 4,700 rebel supporters died and 2,100 are missing, with unconfirmed similar casualty figure on the other side.”
110,000 versus roughly 14,000. The war in Syria is characterized not only by the immense loss of life, but also by gargantuan amounts of refugees. The entire struggle is immensely complicated, and the United States’ chances of achieving its goals for intervention will be much lower than the prospects of success in Libya. As far as international support is concerned, the two situations are also very different. In March 2011, over one dozen coalition nations began the intervention in Libya. It is apparent that few of those nations have an appetite for a second intervention in Syria.
"The war in Syria is characterized not only by the immense loss of life, but also by gargantuan amounts of refugees. "
Altogether, the Syrian conflict is far more complicated, far more heated, and far more dangerous than the Libyan civil war. NPR‘s Ari Schapiro identified several reasons “why Syria is more complicated than Libya”: Russia’s defense of Syria, the “uneasy mix” of religious groups in Syria, the high cost of post-intervention reconstruction, and the lack of clarity surrounding the purpose of American military action.
Schapiro’s final argument should be the one of most concern to the Obama administration, at least as American polls are concerned. Pew Research’s Center for the People & the Press conducted polls throughout the intervention in Libya. One thing that stands out is how respondents’ sense of a clear goal in Libya actually diminished as American military action continued. For example: in late March, 39% of Americans believed that the U.S. and its allies had a clear goal in Libya, and 50% disagreed. Then, in early April, the numbers were even worse: 30% of Americans saw a clear goal in the intervention, and 57% did not. One can only imagine the sort of negative numbers that would result from a U.S. intervention in Syria.
There are two lessons from Libya that Americans can apply to potential action in Syria. First, the struggle against Assad is far more complicated and risky than the struggle against Gaddafi. If it turns out that, yes, Assad undoubtedly used chemical weapons against his own people even when he had the upper hand, then what will he do when U.S. intervention threatens his prospects of winning the civil war? Second, unclear goals for intervention, or at least the appearance of fogginess, is deadly to domestic support. It may be the latter lesson from Libya, and not the former, that causes American policymakers to rethink the necessity of intervention in Syria.