Obama's foreign policy failure: from Libya to Syria

Obama's foreign policy failure: from Libya to Syria
Comment: To bomb or not to bomb? Military interventions rarely work out as planned, writes Karim Barakat.
7 min read
14 Apr, 2016
President Obama has failed to bring resolution to many conflicts [Getty]

In an interview conducted by Fox News, US President Barack Obama declared that the worst mistake during his presidency was the intervention in Libya.

Though Obama maintained that NATO support for the Libyan rebels at the time was necessary, the main problem concerned the lack of planning following the ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Present-day Libya testifies to such a failure. For a while, Libya has been torn between two parliaments. A recent agreement has promised an end to such a division by forming a unity government.

However, such an agreement appears to be floundering with certain sides of the Tripoli-based Islamist government refusing to hand power to the unity government. The political divisions have also most recently brought about an alarming increase in the number of IS combatants on Libyan soil.

But if the US approach to the Libyan political vacuum was problematic, its role in the Syrian situation may be just as devastating.

Libya contra Syria

Obama's declaration has been widely criticised, primarily for disregarding the equally miserable fate of Syria. Some have contended that the US inactivity in Syria has brought about worse outcomes than the NATO role in Libya.

   What's been going on in Libya?

The General National Congress was the Islamist-led elected body ruling Libya for two years following Gaddafi's ousting and death. After its 18-month deadline to form a new constitution passed in January 2014, the body resolved to extend its mandate.

General Khalifa Haftar, a senior figure in the forces that toppled Gaddafi, called on the GNC to disband. In May, Haftar led troops against Islamist militias in Benghazi and the GNC in Tripoli in an offensive named Operation Dignity.

Amid the chaos, an election was held to form the House of Representatives, which took power from the GNC in August. With rival militias ruling Libya's streets, the election turnout was just 18 percent. Islamist militias then launched Operation Libya Dawn to fight Haftar's troops.

With the lack of security in the capital, the House of Representatives hired a Greek car ferry harboured in the eastern city of Tobruk as a temporary legislature. 

In late August, a group of GNC members reconvened in Tripoli and claimed legislative authority over the country, effectively replacing the House of Representatives as Libya's parliament. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives remained the internationally recognised government, though its actual authority on the ground in Libya was limited.

Libya's Supreme Court, based in Islamist-held Tripoli, ruled in November that the formation of the House of Representatives was unconstitutional, legally dissolving the Tobruk-based legislature and nullifying its decisions.

The Tobruk-based parliament refused to accept the court's ruling, saying it was made "at gunpoint". 

Libya became torn between the rival parliaments and the heavily armed militias that support each. Allegiances between the militias changed frequently, which only added to the instability, violence and danger faced by ordinary Libyan citizens.

Efforts by the UN to establish a "unity government" has led to a third administration, this one led by Fayez Sarraj, claiming overall political legitimacy for the country and setting up shop in Tripoli in late March 2016. The much-aniticipated chaos subsequently failed to materialise, as Sarraj faces the task of strengthening his mandate through popular acceptance and working towards an end to the violence and insecurity plaguing the country.

The Obama administration had contemplated a military intervention in the summer of 2013. The main reasons, however, for the absence of a full-scale deployment in Syria are well-known.

Syria's regional and international allies, on the one hand, have prevented any kind of resolution for military involvement to pass through the Security Council. In addition, Syria's critical proximity - to Israel primarily, but also to Iraq and Iran, has rendered military action extremely risky in a volatile region.

Moreover, the Assad regime appears to have successfully maintained some unity and a minimal degree of popular support, exploiting the presence of minority groups alienated by Islamist factions.

In Syria, then, and in contrast to the Libyan situation, a different set of problems has emerged with US policy. With its "No Boots On The Ground" decision, Washington avoided slipping into another Iraq-like war that would be draining both at the military and economic level. This would also have produced a more direct conflict between the US and Iranian spheres of influence.

Accordingly, it is sufficiently clear that a direct military intervention in Syria would have produced ripples that would have had devastating effects on the region.

So far, the US' engagement has been mostly limited to supporting what has been termed "moderate" paramilitary groups and exerting diplomatic pressure to isolate the Assad regime. It is noteworthy that the first manifestation of political opposition which followed a nonviolent plan of action was crushed between the regime's brutality and the impatient leap to arms among certain opposition groups.

In this context, the Syrian regime bears the bulk of responsibility for the deterioration of the situation in Syria.

But it has been clear for a while that the sudden collapse of the state would have brought about a struggle for power akin to the one we find in Libya today. The situation would have been aggravated by the much stronger presence of IS in Syria and the activity of the Nusra Front.

For that matter, meaningful progressive political change cannot emerge from a military "victory".

In Libya, on the other hand, IS only became a problem following the collapse of Gaddafi's forces and the strengthening of Islamist groups, along with entrenched tribal allegiances that produced a complex political scene.


US dual strategy in Syria


The US' double strategy of supporting the opposition militarily and isolating the Syrian regime has allowed it to refrain from a direct involvement that would be costly on all fronts.

However, neither strategy has proven to have much success. The Assad regime has thus far successfully retained its relations with key international powers, most notoriously Russia and Iran.

While Moscow has provided ample military and diplomatic support, Tehran's significance has increased with Iran's recent re-entry into the international community following the nuclear deal.

The military support the US has provided to Syrian opposition groups has also failed, mostly due to the rapid weakening of non-fundamentalist battle groups. In fact, US military training and weapons provided to rebels appear to have been easily received by the Nusra Front - al-Qaeda's local franchise - either due to shifting allegiances or the capture of US-backed opposition fighters.

The Syrian crisis becomes even more complicated with the spread of IS affiliates across the world

The Obama administration repeatedly found itself with no foothold in Syrian territory in the absence of any militarily strong faction. Even the latest capture of Shadadi by Kurdish forces under the shadow of US airstrikes has not allowed an increase in US influence, given Turkey's veto against relying on Kurdish groups in Northern Syria.

The Syrian crisis becomes even more complicated with the spread of IS affiliates across the world - as exemplified in the Paris and the Brussels attacks.

Most recently, IS has claimed responsibility for clashes with the Philippines armed forces, while the authorities continue to reject the link between the Abu Sayyaf group and IS. In Libya, the risk produced by IS' presence could only have followed from their strong appearance in Syria and Iraq.

But while international IS attacks have augmented the urgency of the global diplomatic community in finding a resolution for the Syrian matter, the ceasefire seems to be faltering.

The truce appears under threat following the increase in the Aleppo clashes. The Wall Street Journal reported that the US might provide the rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry if the ceasefire does not hold, a move which could jeopardise the regime's aerial advantage.

In short, the US strategy in Syria cannot be deemed a failure similar to that of Libya.

In Syria, the regime has been successfully pushing back any political or military transformation, whether to the better or worse. However, the persistent increase in the militarisation of the conflict on both sides raises the question of whether a government following any political settlement will be able to rein in the various militias involved in the current battles.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy in the American University of Beirut. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.