World

Why the U.S. and Western Countries Could Be Bluffing About Military Intervention in Syria

Paying the price for a high-octane media push for war.

Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB / Flickr Creative Commons

Five years ago, a high-octane media campaign pushed for war on Libya. Voices in the Gulf Arab press, in particular, cried out for blood. Al-Arabiya, the media conglomerate owned by the Saudi kingdom, led the way. It suggested that genocide was on the horizon in Libya’s eastern cities. The forces of Muammar Qaddafi, it said, had moved swiftly against the rebellion. Qaddafi’s legions would not only crush the rebellion, it suggested, but it would kill a great number of civilians.

The Western press echoed al-Arabiya, with far less understanding of the dynamics that involved Qaddafi and the Gulf Arab sheikhs. After all, in 2009, at the Arab League summit in Doha (Qatar), Qaddafi looked directly at the King of Saudi Arabia and said, “You are propelled by fibs towards the grave. You were made by the British and protected by the United States.” King Abdullah, furious, said to Qaddafi, “the grave is before you.” Personal animosity from the Gulf Arab emirs should not be underestimated. Only someone with little understanding of the Arabic media would have given al-Arabiya any credibility.

It was shocking then to have the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon say that he was getting his information on Libya through “press reports.” What press was the UN secretariat reading? Was it the Arabic language press, with al-Arabiya in the lead, or was it reading the Western press, which was largely mimicking the coverage in the Gulf Arab media?

Derek Chollet of the US National Security Council said, four years after the destruction of Libya, “We, the US, did not have a particularly good handle on what was going on inside Libya.”

From the battlefield, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times wrote, “The rebels feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda, claiming nonexistent battlefield victories, asserting they were still fighting in a key cities days after it fell to Qaddafi’s forces and making vastly inflated claims of [Qaddafi’s] barbaric behavior.”

The United Nations, the Western capitals and the Western media admitted -  in different ways – that they had no good sense of what was going on inside Libya. And yet, they went to the UN Security Council eager to conduct a regime change operation in Libya. Their ignorance of events inside Libya did not stay the hand of their zealotry.

Last week, the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee released an important report on the lead-up to the NATO intervention in Libya and its aftermath. It made a number of important concessions regarding the lead-up to the war. Three of them, in particular, are significant.

Exaggerations of the violence

At the time, in February 2011, a great deal of noise was made about the genocide or potential genocide in Libya. The shadow of the Bosnian war – over the town of Srebrenica – hung over Benghazi. Would the forces of Qaddafi massacre thousands of people, as had been killed in the former Yugoslavia in 1995? US President Barack Obama’s advisor Dennis Ross said that Benghazi would be “Srebrenica on steroids.” The UK’s report says that Qaddafi’s forces “did not take violent retribution against civilians in towns and cities on the road to Benghazi.” It notes that in town after town the Libyan army entered, fought the rebels and offered an olive branch to the tribal leaders. Casualty rates showed that there were disproportionate male casualties, which suggest that the “regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians.” An Amnesty International report from June 2011 shows that there is no evidence of mass human rights violations.

Certainly, Qaddafi and his son – Saif al-Islam – used fierce and violent rhetoric against the rebels. This was certainly chilling, but also clichéd. It was the kind of rhetoric that Qaddafi had often used, but rarely acted upon. What should have been equally alarming was the rhetoric being used by the rebels and the émigrés. There was fear-mongering that Qaddafi would unleash “African mercenaries” on the uprising. Between Misrata and Tawergha, rebels proudly declared themselves as “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin.” The ethnic cleansing in Tawergha was the outcome of this racism. This was known during NATO’s bombing, but nothing was said of it – not by the NATO commanders to the émigré leadership in Benghazi. It was rhetoric, with consequences, that did not stir the West.

Political options set aside

 The UN Security Council passed resolution 1973 to provide cover for NATO’s war in Libya. The resolution urged the powers to try various political options before using armed action in Libya. The UK Parliamentary inquiry noted, “Political options were available if the UK Government had adhered to the spirit of Resolution 1973, implemented its original campaign plan and influenced its coalition allies to pause military action when Benghazi was secured in March 2011.” Furthermore, “political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at lesser cost to the UK and to Libya.”

The African Union met in Noakchoutt, Mauritania, on March 19, 2011, and hoped to fly to Tripoli the next day. They wanted to open a channel to Qaddafi and the émigré leadership in the hope of preventing a war. The President of Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz – offered an aircraft for the team. Before they could go on their mission, the West began to bomb Libya. The US and the UN told the African Union that they could not guarantee the security of the team. The African Union was sidelined. So were others who sought to create a table for negotiations. War became the first option. It is what the UK Parliament’s report now underlines.

Extremists in the ranks of the rebels

 In early 2011, when those of us who pointed out that the rebel ranks were filled with veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, al-Qaeda and other extremist outfits, we were mocked and dismissed. That people such as Abdelhakim Belhaj emerged as the leadership of the troops was not considered to be a serious issue. When Lord Richards – former Chief of the Defense Staff of the UK armed forces – told the UK Parliamentary committee that “a quorum of respectable Libyans were assuring the Foreign Office” that these extremists would not be the beneficiaries of the rebellion and the NATO war. This, he said, “with the benefit of hindsight” was “wishful thinking.” The UK Parliamentary report dismissed the retreat into hindsight. “The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should have not been the preserve of hindsight,” the authors wrote. “Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.”

But this view was precisely debunked in the manufactured fog of war. It was set aside. 

Syria’s Libyan Lessons

The disaster of Libya has meant that the West is now deeply reticent to act in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Those who call for a “No Fly Zone” in Syria are deluded if they assume that the West is going to provide such an instrument. There will be neither UN backing for such a policy nor will the Western governments themselves risk such an adventure.

US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton might make these gestures in her speeches, but she well knows that her own military would oppose such an action. It is easy for her to call for a No Fly Zone, and then claim that it is only the Russians and the Chinese who are against this policy. In fact, the Western governments – burned by the Libyan adventure as much as the Iraq one – no longer have the stomach for such a policy. The call for a No Fly Zone emboldens the rebels in Syria to refuse to come to talks in Geneva. Rather than an avenue towards peace, the No Fly Zone rhetoric is merely a prolongation of war.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, has seen the tide shift in its favor. Turkey has largely abandoned its proxies in East Aleppo. This has provided the Syrian government and its allies the opportunity to try and seize East Aleppo from the rebels. Damascus has a short timetable. They want to finish this campaign before President Hillary Clinton comes to power. The brutal nature of the conflict is a measure of their haste. It is largely inevitable that – at great cost – Aleppo will come back into government hands. Calls for negotiation are appropriate but largely inconsequential. It was the withdrawal of Turkish support – rather than any Western action – that ended the rebel hold on East Aleppo. The withdrawal of the rebels from East Aleppo would be a humane action. In Mosul, the ISIS leadership now speaks of inhiyaz or temporary retreat. If the rebels left East Aleppo, they would prevent the inevitable bloodshed. But they are not going to do so. This is the tragedy of that great cosmopolitan city.

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Vijay Prashad is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is also the author of Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017) and The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016), among other books.