*A Version of this article was published on Muftah.
Vladimir Putin’s bold New York Times op-ed piece is a calculated step by the “bear-wrestling” Russian president to reassert his country’s power at the international level.
After publicizing an improbable eleventh-hour plan to disarm Syria of chemical weapons to halt U.S. strikes, Putin penned a public rebuke of the U.S. government. In an article titled, Plea for Caution, Putin publicly chided the United States for its recent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rebuked the true basis for its military adventures, namely, the much-vaunted “US exceptionalism.”
While Putin’s writing style is terse and direct, his op-ed contains various false and misleading claims. These include Putin’s insistence he was motivated by democratic values and international norms in proposing the disarmament plan.
In fact, Putin’s intervention in the Syrian crisis is a calculated geopolitical move that seeks to reinvent Russia as a super power in the international arena, and major power broker in the Middle East.
Putin also harps on the usual themes of Islamist extremism in the Syrian civil war, as well as radical Islamist abuses against civilians, while ignoring the equally violent and atrocious violations committed by the Syrian regime for the last two years.
But what is perhaps Putin’s most blatant misrepresentation is his attempt to paint NATO’s intervention in the 2011 Libyan conflict as leaving the country worse off.
Putin’s article presents Libya as a country “divided into tribes and clans,” thanks to NATO’s intervention. Contrary to Putin’s claims, however, it is the Libyan experience that demonstrates the positive impact that international intervention in Syria could bring. It is also a reminder of the role Russia has played in ensuring that no such benefit would be realized by the Syrian people.
It is true that, since Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime fell in October 2011, Libya has effectively become a nation of various tribes and clans, and that, at times, this has created various security issues for the North African state’s nascent political system.
But, what Putin failed to mention in his article is that however imperfect the Libyan experience is now, ordinary Libyans are much better off today than during Ghaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship.
Post-Ghaddafi Libya has avoided large-scale civil strife and is slowly moving toward a system of governance that in due time will likely ensure security and order. Libyans currently enjoy a great deal of freedom, particularly when compared to their experiences under Ghaddafi’s regime.
For the most part, the people of Libya remain grateful to the United States and the international community for the military intervention, which greatly degraded Ghaddafi’s forces and precipitated the fall of the country’s authoritarian government.
Libyans are cautiously optimistic about their nascent political experiment, and cognizant that acts of violence and terrorism, which are largely perpetrated by foreign radical factions, are growing pains for their infant country.
Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) has made marked strides toward democracy despite security challenges; the GNC still has no standing military and relies on a fickle mercenary militia force made up of former rebels.
The GNC, along with the current government led by Prime Minister Ali Zidan, has had an unsurprisingly tough time building a new political system after decades of institutional void, amid rising political overreach by Islamist groups.
But, not all is gloom and doom in Libya. The country is still engaged in a slow process of constitution drafting, and is pursuing a National Dialogue initiative that, if successful, will further the country’s democratic transition. Libyan civil society is more vibrant than ever, with various groups and organizations pursuing their particular conceptions of the public good.
Libya is certainly undergoing a tumultuous time, but this might well be a necessary part of the process of birthing a new state and society based on the rule of law and civil rights. Every step forward, no matter how unstable and slow it may be, is viewed by many as a step away from the country’s dark political past.
Unfortunately, at this point, a Libyan-style intervention in Syria might not be possible for several reasons. Libya had a relatively unified opposition in the form of the National Transition Council and a leadership figure in Mustapha Abdul Jalil who managed to rally all Libyans factions behind the cause of fighting Ghaddafi. Syria lacks such leadership, as well as a cohesive opposition amid the thousands of rebel groups, domestic and foreign, that are actively fighting on the ground. Other obstacles to intervention relate to the nature of the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region as Russia is determined to back its Syrian ally and challenge US historical dominance in the Middle East. Other obstacles are traceable to Russia’s obstructionist posture in the United Nations amidst Russian continuous refusal of any UN Sec Council resolutions on Syria.
While Putin is unfortunately correct in his assessment of Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya has enjoyed monumental institutional achievements since Ghaddafi’s fall.
Libya is arguably one of the hopeful stories of the Arab uprisings, a country in transition that merits international help, in areas such as military training, economic development, institutional building, and conflict resolution, and is far from a cautionary tale for international intervention.