What Assad is thinking about Qaddafi's fall.
In scenes reminiscent of the jubilation in Cairo's Tahrir Square when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, cheering Libyans, firing gunshots into the air, filled Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday August 21st to celebrate what they believed to be the downfall of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime. While the dictator himself remained elusive, the rebels claimed that they had two of his sons in custody.
What a difference a day makes. Qaddafi's son Seif al-Islam, thought to be under arrest, made a triumphant appearance instead at a hotel with foreign journalists. And the loyalists are fighting back.
For more than five months, NATO forces have been pounding the Libyan regime's military forces, weaponry and facilities from the air. It has also been reported that, in contravention of the United Nations Security Council resolutions banning arms shipments to anyone in Libya and authorizing only air attacks to protect civilians, France has been supplying the rebels with arms while French and British special ops forces have been on the ground to clear out resistance to the rebels' final march into Tripoli.
Yet the Qaddafi regime - while pummeled and teetering - is not yet dead. But even assuming that the last chapter of the Qaddafi regime is very near its conclusion and Qaddafi does go down, the epilogue is not likely to be a happy one.
The problem in Libya is the same as we see unfolding in Egypt, if not worse. Post-Mubarak Egypt is an economic basket case and a lawless mess, with the most organized forces that are positioning themselves to shape Egypt's future belonging to, or allied with, the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Libya is even less prepared for a peaceful post-revolutionary period than Egypt was, because it lacks basic institutional foundations on which to build a representative form of government. Libya itself is little more than an amalgam of tribes and clans. It is torn by ethnic and regional conflicts, historical grudges and religious versus secular differences, with little vision of a united nation-state of free and equal Libyan citizens.
A power vacuum is being created that may well be filled by Islamist forces, who will not permit true democracy to take hold. In a sign of what may be coming, Part 1, Article 1 of the draft constitutional charter for the transitional state reads as follows: “Islam is the Religion of the State, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).”
If the Islamists prevail and set up an Iranian-style theocracy, they will pose a far greater danger to the strategic interests of the West than Qaddafi has posed in recent years.
Alternatively, after the euphoria over Qaddafi's downfall fades, competing tribes vying for power may descend into civil war.
In order to try and prevent a chaotic aftermath to Qaddafi's overthrow, consideration is being given to sending NATO ground forces into Libya under UN auspices to maintain stability. That would require a new UN Security Council resolution, which is unlikely to pass over Russian and Chinese objections. In any event, such an open-ended commitment of ground forces would look like Iraq all over again, where Saddam Hussein's quick overthrow was followed by years of war against insurgent forces. NATO ground forces stationed in Libya will appear like "occupation" forces to the Muslim world, providing yet another recruiting tool for jihad against the West.
Meanwhile, during the same dog days of August that have seen the Libyan rebels enter Tripoli with victory so tantalizingly close, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have killed dozens more people on top of the 2,000 or so already massacred, with the support of Iran and its terrorist arm, Hezbollah. While agreeing to allow a UN humanitarian team to enter Syria, Assad's forces shot dead three people in Homs during a visit by a UN humanitarian team on August 22nd.
President Obama interrupted his Martha's Vineyard vacation to issue a statement on Monday saying that Qaddafi's reign over Libya is "coming to an end," but failed to use the opportunity to comment on what was simultaneously happening in Syria. Apparently, he believed that his belated call a few days ago for Assad to step down was sufficient. And returning to Washington during the dual crises of Libya and Syria, not to mention the economic crisis here at home, does not appear to be an option. After all, President Obama's own advisors had said that Obama chose to "lead from behind" and wait for the "international community" to act.
At least, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon can walk and chew gum at the same time. While praising "the courage and determination of the Libyan people to seek a free and democratic future” at a press briefing on Monday at UN headquarters, Ban condemned Syrian dictator Assad for not keeping his promise to Ban to stop the violence that the regime has been employing to quell internal protests. "It is troubling that he has not kept his word. Many world leaders have been speaking to him to halt immediately military operations that are killing his own people," Ban said, "and he assured me [he would] do that and military operations have already stopped."
To be clear, international military intervention in Syria is not the answer. With Iran's full financial, military and technical support, Assad knows that he is in a far stronger position to repel any attempt at international military intervention than the Qaddafi regime, which, as previously mentioned, is not going quietly. We could also expect to see Hezbollah and Palestinian refugees living in Syria and Lebanon unleashed on Israel, as a diversionary tactic.
Assad warned the international community over the weekend not to consider military intervention: "As for the threat of a military action ... any action against Syria will have greater consequences (on those who carry it out), greater than they can tolerate."
Assad does not have to worry. He knows that Russia and China are watching his back at the UN Security Council, which would have to pass a resolution authorizing international military action to give the Obama administration and its NATO allies "legitimacy" to attack Assad's regime.
Moreover, even if there were international military intervention that would ultimately lead to Assad's overthrow, what then? A fundamentalist Sunni Islamist regime could emerge that retains Syria's alliance with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, as well as with Sunni Hamas, for strategic and tactical reasons in opposition to the West, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps Syria's increasing isolation amongst its fellow Arab countries, and Turkey's reversal of its warming relations with Syria (and, by extension, Syria's patrons in Iran) will be the best we can hope for, unless the powerful Syrian business class gets fed up enough with Assad to press for change in a more secular direction and is backed up by significant portions of the Syrian military. But that change will have to come from within, helped along by as much economic pressure as the West, the Arab Gulf nations and Turkey can muster.
Will President Obama lead from the front this time? Unlikely.