THE MURDER of a US ambassador is a shocking event, so rare that the last time it happened the Russians were in Afghanistan. The Libyan government has made all the right overtures in response to violence that was instigated by a shallow YouTube video by a self-described American-Israeli who calls Islam a “cancer.” But the larger implications of the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans won’t be felt in Libya. They will be felt in Syria.
The tragedy in Libya will put serious brakes on calls for international humanitarian intervention in Syria. The drumbeat for Western powers to end Bashar Assad’s regime once and for all had only grown stronger in the last weeks of August and into September. And for obvious reasons. Syria is now more prone to violence than Iraq was at the height of the war there. Russia and China continue to use their vetoes at the UN Security Council to void any international efforts to help the divided rebels. Iran is increasingly comfortable in propping up its Syrian friends in the Assad regime. Foreign militants converge on Syria in hopes that a post-Assad regime will be an Islamic government. Refugees continue to flee to Turkey and Jordan, creating levels of violence in two nations that have remained relatively stable in this era of Middle East unrest.
Arms are flowing to the Syrian government from Iran and Russia; arms flow to the Syrian rebels from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Amid this utter chaos, humanitarian interventionists challenged Western nations to step forward and save lives and end the brutality. Look at the success of humanitarian intervention in Libya, they said, and the evidence seemed remarkably hard to refute. The NATO mission in Libya, led by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, seemed to be a case study for how to get in, save lives, and get out.
After months of resistance, Western powers began to pay attention. The new French president, Francois Hollande, seemed to shift course and embrace the rebels after months of delay. He was prodded by none other than Sarkozy himself, who came out of post-election hiding to make the case that Syrian intervention could succeed like the Libyan mission. Hollande responded by giving a little ground.
It was the concession that Syrian activists were waiting for. Hollande, who won on a platform of mocking Sarkozy’s interventionist fervor, was now willing to recognize a provisional government made up of the Syrian opposition and send direct aid to support the rebels. It was Libya redux.
But there was always something careless about the Libya/Syria analogy, something that seemed to belie the facts on the ground. With few friends, Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy was expendable; he was the “crazy Arab” that other Arab nations viewed as such. Libya was no powerhouse, and intervention did not ignite a proxy war with Iran or Russia. The Libyan rebels were unified; the Syrian rebel groups are plentiful, and their actions are often grossly violent. (And, it is worth remembering, even in “easy” Libya, the air war took months longer than anyone anticipated.)
Nonetheless, Hollande’s statement marked a huge change of current. Syria, after all, had been a colony of France, and France’s absence in debates about intervention was telling. If France moved, maybe others would, too? And then came the killings of Stevens and the other Americans, a vivid reminder than analogies don’t really work in foreign policy. This flare-up of Libyan violence may prove to be an aberration, but murdered US ambassadors are not easily forgotten.
The argument for involvement in Syria can no longer hide behind the shadows of Libya. The tragedy will have tremendous consequences for how the United States can and will position its Syrian strategy. Libya is simply no longer a compelling piece of evidence in favor of Syrian intervention. Without the “easy” case to rely on, the more difficult case for intervention becomes that much harder.
With Libya and Egypt in violence, a US ambassador dead, and potential uprisings throughout the Muslim world, the only person who had a good day on Wednesday was Bashar Assad.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.