Lessons From Libya

Unlike the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi refused to go peaceably when the Arab spring uprisings migrated next door to Libya. Last week he paid for that defiance with his life; an outcome that should rattle other regional tyrants, especially Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

Gaddafi's ouster was a triumph not only for Libya's rebels but also for NATO, which turned the tide of battle in their favor. It also vindicated President Obama's decision to let Europe take the lead and limit U.S. forces to a supporting role in enforcing the U.N.-sanctioned "no fly zone" over Libya.

I was skeptical that NATO airpower alone would be sufficient to de-fang Gaddafi, and wanted the allies to arm the rebels. It turns out, however, that NATO -- in a very liberal interpretation of its mandate to protect Libyan civilians -- worked closely with the opposition in a combined air and ground offensive that methodically wore down regime forces.

With a little help from their friends, Libyans liberated themselves, and some are now waving French and U.S. flags in gratitude. What we've witnessed in Libya, in fact, could be a new model for collective security in which the United States no longer bears a disproportionate share of the risks and costs of intervention. "We've demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century," Obama declared last week. "Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end."

Unfortunately, the new model probably isn't applicable to Syria, where another ruthless dictator confronts a popular revolt.

Bashar al-Assad is busy doing in Syria what NATO prevented Qaddafi's forces from doing in Libya -- slaughtering civilians. Even though his henchmen reportedly have killed between 3,000 and 5,000 or more civilians, courageous Syrians still take to the streets daily to challenge the regime.

The regime's brutality has prompted thousands to defect from the Syrian army and join the opposition. Syria thus appears headed toward the same kind of armed insurrection that convulsed Libya. This time, however, there's little chance that NATO will play deus ex machina to Syria's rebels.

Western military intervention in Syria is unlikely for three main reasons. First, Syria is bigger and better armed than Libya, and lies in the Arab heartland rather than on its periphery. Second, while Libya's erratic "Brother Leader" had few friends in the world, Assad has an important regional patron in Iran, whose Revolutionary Guard reportedly is helping him put down the protests. Third, Russia and China vehemently object to the principle of humanitarian intervention, presumably because they fear it could be invoked someday against them. Earlier this month they vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad for the violent suppression of peaceful protests.

The political and humanitarian stakes in Syria are growing. Gaddafi's fall and probable execution by vengeful rebels will likely reinforce Assad's determination to bludgeon Syrian demonstrators into submission. If he succeeds in resurrecting what was among the grimmest police states in the region, Assad will have delivered the most serious check to date to the Arab spring's revolutionary momentum. It will also bind Damascus more tightly to Iran, and boost morale among the radical rejectionists in Hezbollah and Hamas. Assad's survival could also push Iraq, which is apprehensive about a Sunni takeover in Syria, closer to its Shia brethren in Tehran.

Having abetted Libya's liberation, the United States and its European partners obviously have an interest in encouraging its Transitional National Council to set up an effective and representative central government. This won't be easy in a relatively backward (despite its oil and gas riches) Arab state rent by tribal and regional divisions and, thanks to 42 years of despotic rule by Gaddafi, lacking in strong civic and national institutions.

The council's weekend announcement that it is imposing Sharia law throughout Libya has provoked "I told you so" reactions from U.S. "realists" and other critics of NATO's intervention. But as Obama said, Libya's road to self-government will be long and winding, and thanks to NATO's intervention, the West will have some influence over the course of events there.

What's crucial now is for the U.S. and Europe to turn their attention to Syria's incipient civil war. Even as Assad's jets hammer unarmed civilians, there's no chance of a U.N. sanctioned no fly, no drive zone there. But the West has other means at its disposal to buttress the rebellion, and thereby help sustain the momentum of Arab demands for freedom and justice.