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World powers reluctant to apply Libyan tactics to Syrian uprising

With the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Syria showing no sign of abating, the international community is reluctant to follow the same path to intervention that it took when dealing with the situation in Libya.

Syrian protesters chant angry slogans as they protest against the ongoing violence in Syria in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, April 26, 2011.

Syrians are unlikey to get the same protection as Libyans

With NATO airstrikes against Colonel Muammar Gadhafi's forces entering a second month with no solution to the conflict in sight, the international community appears reluctant to apply the same rules to the developing crisis in Syria as it has in Libya.

While efforts by France and Britain to gain a UN resolution to begin airstrikes and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya were rapid and concerted, even attempts to muster an official United Nations condemnation of the Syrian violence have so far been muted.

A draft statement condemning the crackdown and urging restraint by the Damascus government was circulated to the member nations of the UN Security Council this week by a number of European countries but it was rejected after Russia, China and Lebanon opposed the text which they said constituted "outside interference in Arab countries that could be a threat to peace."

Russia and China have become increasingly critical of the Libyan intervention which they believe aims to oust Gadhafi and have similar reservations concerning any interference in Syria. Lebanon, the sole Arab nation on the Security Council, is wary of antagonizing its more powerful regional neighbor which continues to have a strong influence over politics in Beirut and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

No rush to war

Danish airforce personnel stand on the tarmac next to F-16 aircrafts at the Nato airbase in Sigonella, on the southern Italian Sicily island, Sunday, March 20, 2011.

The UN chooses to talk rather than deploy warplanes to Syria

Faced with the possibility of damaging divisions within the Security Council, the international community seems to have settled on staging a public debate on Syria at the UN rather than attempting to rush through the kind of measures put in place to intervene in Libya.

Britain's Defense Minister Liam Fox and his US counterpart Robert Gates have both ruled out a Libya-style intervention in Syria, saying there were "practical limitations" to their military power, stretched as both nations' armies are by campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya.

Regional analysts believe that the situation on the ground in Syria, while terrible, is perceived by world leaders as not yet being at the same level as that which prompted international intervention in Libya.

"We don't have a civil war situation in Syria yet," Dr. Steffen Hertog, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle. "In Libya, part of the country had broken off and an alternative proto-government was in the making, so it was relatively easy to intervene on the side of the opposition."

"Also, the threat of violence in the case of an invasion of Benghazi by Gadhafi forces also seemed worse than what has happened in Syria thus far."

"I don't think we can compare Syria to Libya," Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "It's a very different society. Assad cannot lead a war against his population for a long time because Syria is not a country that you can close down. Syria cannot live in isolation."

Double standards?

Bloodied flag as people demonstrate against Syrian regime in Baniyas, Syria on April 22, 2011.

Critics argue action should be taken to prevent all bloodshed

The situation with Libya and Syria has once again led to accusations that the international community has double standards when it comes to intervention to protect civilians with critics arguing that it should not pick and choose which population to protect once the decision has been taken to use force to defend a populace from its repressive government's actions.

To many regional analysts however, this is simplistic view of a very complex situation.

"What we see is not double standards as much as confusion and lack of strategy," Nadim Shehadi, a Middle Expert at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle. "Things are moving too fast for policy makers; they got dragged into Libya and they are not sure why. This whole Arab revolt is badly timed for them. They had settled into realism and engagement and cut down on democratization budgets and programs."

"Syria was at the heart of the 'Isolation versus Engagement' debate and so everybody and their uncle has been on that Road to Damascus. Now they're in shock at Assad's behaviour."

The reluctance to engage in Syria may also come from the fear that arises from not knowing what would happen in the country and the wider Middle East should intervention be launched, let alone what could happen if it led to Assad being overthrown.

A necessary evil

Barack Obama and Bashar Assad

Obama's hopes of peace with Assad's help are diminishing

Many, specifically the United States, see Assad's regime as a necessary evil; a government that prevents a potentially explosive sectarian situation getting out hand by keeping it tightly gripped in an iron glove. Assad's removal could ignite a conflict within Syria's borders which has the potential to spread well beyond them.

Any intervention could spark a proxy war with Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon and incite Hamas to attack the Jewish State from the Occupied Territories. Iran - which has links to both Islamic movements and is a close ally to Syria - could also contribute to inflaming tensions in the region.

"Syria is in a more critical geo-strategic spot than Libya, especially considering it shares a border with Israel, so there's greater fear of the potential regional repercussions of regime breakdown there," Steffen Hertog said.

Syria also has a well-trained army backed by Russian-built missiles and combat aircraft, and suspected chemical weapons, making any military intervention much more hazardous than that aimed at crippling Gadhafi's already brittle and poorly equipped armed forces.

The US also considers the Syrians to be one of the most important players in the world’s most volatile region and sees diplomatic relations with Assad as way of forming an Israeli-Syrian détente which could lead to progress between the Palestinians and Israel.

However, Assad's credentials as a peace broker now appear to be in tatters since he started killing his own people.

There is also the question of what the international community stands to gain from intervening in Syria. Its oil industry is minuscule in comparison to Libya's and its geographical position means that it plays no part in stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into Europe, a role Gadhafi was willing to play in return for support from reluctant allies in the EU.

The situation remains, experts say, that the international community considers that it has more to lose than to gain by intervening in Syria.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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