The Syrian conflict through a Libyan lens


Libyans asked for assistance during the revolution and they received it: the Syrian opposition has been asking for international assistance for eighteen months yet has received little or no response.

Rhiannon Smith
26 November 2012

It should come as no surprise that, having overthrown their own dictator, the Libyan people feel a great deal of empathy towards the Syrians in their struggle against Bashar Al-Assad. Libya suffered through a nine month civil war during which many lost their lives, but it could have dragged on for much longer. The view from inside Libya is that had NATO not intervened, then the rebels would still be waging a bloody, drawn-out battle against Colonel Gaddafi today, with thousands more lives being brutalised or extinguished completely.

The current situation in Libya is far from perfect, but the majority who fought against Gaddafi see Libya as a better country today than it ever was before, because they have their freedom. That Libya is often used as a reason not to intervene in Syria baffles and angers many. Far too often Libya is portrayed as the latest Iraq or Afghanistan, but this is just not the case. Libyans asked for assistance during the revolution and they received it. On the other hand the Syrian opposition has been asking for international assistance for eighteen months yet has received little or no response.

There is of course recognition that Syria and Libya are different; Libya is a sparsely populated, politically isolated country with a largely homogenous Muslim population whereas Syria is a key Middle Eastern player geographically, politically and religiously, whose population is made up of a myriad of different sects. However the end result in terms of human tragedy is no different. The Libyan rebels had support when they needed it and as a result they feel they have a responsibility to help their brothers in arms in Syria, especially when few others will.

Since the end of the Libyan conflict in October 2011 and the escalation of violence within Syria, Libyans have been channelling their support to the Syrian rebels in the form of funds, weapons and fighters. Most Libyans I have spoken to about the Syrian conflict mention friends or neighbours who have gone to fight there, and indeed many express their desire to go themselves if circumstances allowed.

On a government level, Libya is the only country to have officially recognised the Syrian National Council (SNC) and according to a report released by the SNC on 1 November 2012[i], Libya has been its main funder since it was founded back in October 2011, donating over $20.4 million to the organisation. With the recent shake-up of the Syrian opposition, it remains to be seen whether Libya keeps supporting the SNC or the newly created National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. But either way there is no doubting official Libyan support for Syria is significant and not only on a symbolic level.

Some commentators have highlighted the religious aspect of such support, arguing that Libyans only feel solidarity with the Syrian rebels because the majority are Sunni Muslim (like Libyans). This is further compounded by increasing reports of foreign ‘jihadists’ joining the ranks of the Syrian rebels, of whom it is claimed many are Libyan. However while there are most probably Libyans fighting in Syria for purely religious reasons, I would argue that it is empathy on a human level which motivates the majority of Libyan support for the Syrian cause, whether that support is physical, material or financial. Libyans have experienced firsthand the effects of conflict and civil war. They understand the destructive toll it takes and want to help Syrians achieve what they have taken baby steps towards achieving; peace, freedom and democracy.

[i] www.syriancouncil.org.(Arabic) 

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