A Lesson from Libya

Last week, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman coauthored an op-ed  that advocates that the United States arm Syria’s rebels. They argued that Syria’s rebels are not on a level playing field – al-Assad has a modern army and friends like Russia and China – and that, in the long run, the U.S. is in the best position if it curries favor with rebel groups now. For similar reasons, I agree.

The senators coyly point to Libya as a model. By supporting the rebels there, after all, Qaddafi was ousted, and we made long-term allies. They say the stakes are higher in Syria, so we must act quickly. They’re right about the stakes: Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile hangs in the balance and the conflict could bubble over into neighboring countries. What’s more, Syria’s unrest is shaping up to be the latest front in an ongoing and rapidly escalating cold war between Iran and the rest of the Sunni Gulf powers, chiefly Saudi Arabia.

The senator’s hearts may be in the right place, but referencing Libya doesn’t help their cause. If anything, our track record in Libya is cause to never support rebel factions again. Overthrowing a tyrant like Qaddafi is something to be proud of, to be sure, but our work in Libya helped create a far larger mess. Before we arm Syrian rebels – something I think we should do – thoroughly considering what happened in Libya is constructive.

Some events to consider: Two day’s ago, a man’s hand was cut off for stealing a sheep and, last week, a couple accused of adultery was stoned to death. Okay, this wasn’t in Libya. It didn’t happen in Somalia, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia either. None of the usual suspects were involved.

It happened in Mali. For months now, Mali has effectively been two countries (somehow this has escaped every major news outlet’s attention). The south of the country was seized by a military junta in a spring coup. The Saharan north fell soon after to the MNLA, a secular Tuareg nationalist movement, and Ansar Dine, an ultra-Islamist group. The MNLA has seen its nationalist dreams sidetracked for months now as Ansar Dine, in coordination with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), has imposed strict sharia law on the northern half of the country.

What does this have to do with Libya? Ansar Dine’s leader, Iyad al-Ghali, was encouraged by the Libyan rebels and the West to stir up Tuareg nationalist sentiments within the ranks of Qaddafi’s army. He succeeded. But, after Qaddafi fell, he was left to his own devices. He was increasingly radicalized, and rode the tide of men and weapons into the Malian Sahara following NATO’s Libyan campaign.

Mali’s problems are many. Neither the African Union nor the Economic Council of West African States (ECOWAS) has been able to muster a force to expel Ansar Dine and AQIM. And Mali has received almost no media attention, barring a few features on the Islamists’ decision to destroy parts of the idolatrous relics of Timbuktu. The U.S. and friends’ trigger-happiness in getting rid of Qaddafi ultimately destroyed one of Africa’s great success stories: Mali had been democratic for 20 years and was growing quickly. Now, the rebellion in the north shows no signs of slowing and hundreds of thousands are languishing under a particularly draconian breed of sharia law.

Ultimately, Syria’s rebels do need our help, and we should give it to them. At this stage in the game, communications, food aid, and basic intelligence can only go so far. Al-Assad has lost key intelligence and defense officials to assassination and defection and his forces are stretched razor-thin across Syria. Al-Assad’s regime is growing more desperate by the day, but recently that’s only made him more foolhardy and violent.

But what Libya has taught us is that we cannot cavalierly arm anyone. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman are three of the senate’s most hawkish and influential members. What needs to be understood is that, even after assiduously vetting Syria’s rebel groups and choosing our A-Team, our job is not done. This doesn’t mean committing ground troops to keep the peace in Syria. But it does mean keeping better tabs on our “friends” than we did in Libya. Unfortunately, West Africa is not high on the West’s priority list, and the creation of a failed state (Mali) because of our recklessness in Libya will go unnoticed in the media. The same is not true of the Middle East – and when we arm Syria’s rebels, we need to do it right.