Nir Boms & Ehud Eilam
Academic Views, May 2013
Some parallels exist between the rebels’ situation in Syria and Libya – but also a difference that create two models for an uprising. Can Iran follow one of them too?
The effect of the Arab earthquake
It began in the squares: Tahrir, Manama, Peral, Bourguiba Avenue. The Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians marched to the squares before picking up other means of resistance. In Libya, it started on February 15, 2011 when security forces arrested Fathi Terbil, a prominent lawyer who represented families of some of the 1,200 prisoners massacred by Libyan security forces at Abu Slim prison in 1996. His arrest triggered a wave of demonstrations that, in turn, triggered a harsh response. The regime opened fire and the people picked up arms in self-defense, a step that led to a full mutiny. The uprising in Syria likewise began with waves of peaceful protests that were met with brutal crackdown. This, in turn, resulted into mutual violence that turned into a brutal civil war.
The rebels in Libya were determined to end the brutal rule of a theatrical dictator that acted as an African Caesar that was in power since 1969 and responsible to a Libyan dark age. The rebels in Syria wish to get rid of their oppressing dynasty, the Assad kingdom, that controlled them with an iron fist since 1970. This dynamic could repeat itself in Iran after the last presidential elections in 2009 – like the current elections today – proved that the regime was willing to accept only a candidate of “their own”.
The central lesson learned from the Arab earthquake was about the voice of the people. “The people,” it seems, are far less willing to accept an oppressive regime and will find the first real opportunity to bring a dictator down.
The revaluations in the Arab world saw other models for regime change such as those of Egypt and Tunisia in where other circumstances made the military stay out of the conflict and refuse to join the regime against the people. Not surprisingly, that model has not worked in the stronger dictatorship of Libya and Syria and it will probably not work in Iran. Like the Syrian leadership, Iran has little tolerance for public protest as proven by the number of jailed political dissidents and the crackdown following the 2009 elections. Iran that is currently actively engaged in helping Assad against the Syrian rebels is not shy about using even more force, against her own citizens as well. Furthermore, in contrast to Egypt, the Iranian military does not have similar influence and could not force the leadership to leave.
Where is the Western cavalry?
The uprisings in Libya and Syria started the same: citizens became troops in order to fight a brutal regime. As in Libya the rebels in Syria have been getting access to weapons and ammunition seized during the battles or captured in abandoned camps and depots around the country. As in Libya the rebels in Syria, due to their lack of training and availability, ran into difficulties in accessing and operating heavier weapons such as tanks or artillery.
The rebels therefore depend on simpler firearms, such as assault rifles, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades that are both easier to get and easier to use. This arsenal, however, is not sufficient against a conventional military, as that of Assad and the one Gaddafi had. In Libya that balance was turned only after the Western planes arrived to assist the rebels. In Syria, the rebels are still waiting for the western cavalry.
In the beginning of the war in Libya the rebels, despite of their military shortcomings, failed to use their momentum to achieve a decisive strike. In Syria that momentum was reversed following significant initial gains. As the war in Libya continued, both Gaddafi and the rebels found themselves too weak to win. That stalemate was broken only with Western military involvement that helped the rebels win the war. It appears that the Syrian stalemate will likewise not be broken without foreign intervention. Nevertheless, the western response to the Syrian crisis appears similar to that regarding Iran: to launch another international conference.
In Iran, Western states under the leadership of the United States might wait, assuming that the ongoing economic pressure triggers additional unrest or possibly a call for revolution. In that case, the opposition in Iran – the same opposition that started the “awakening” two years before the “Arab Spring” – would need all the help they can get considering the military strength of the Iranian regime. If, as in 2009, the US and the West will again choose to ignore, the chances for that revolution to gain momentum will likewise be slim. Lessons should be drawn from the Libyan and Syrian modals. They should remind us what is the difference between considering an action and taking one.
Dr. Nir Boms is the co-Founder of CyberDissidents.org
Dr. Ehud Eilam is the US representative of Israel defense magazine