Unlike in Tripoli, there will be no direct American intervention in Damascus. At most, the United States and its Middle Eastern allies will continue to make the Syrian uprising possible through material support. Contrary to paranoiac expectations, President Obama does not seem inclined to ask Congress for any further authority, and because of Russia’s veto there will be no United Nations Security Council resolution on the matter. Syria is the control experiment of the Arab Spring that isolates the variable of American intervention, with Libya as the experiment with the observed variable. So what does the empirical evidence look like so far?
The Syrian conflict has lasted three years and appears to be growing even bloodier. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it has consumed at least 150,000 lives and as many as a quarter million. The UN refugee agency says that nine million Syrians have been displaced, and at current rates half the population of the country will have died or left home this Summer. Intense fighting is interfering with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, compounding the deleterious effects of the war on public health and infrastructure.
The Libyan conflict lasted only eight months and has been over for more than two years. While casualty estimates varied wildly for some time, the current government says that just 6,800 Libyans are dead or missing as a result of the war. Although the security situation in Libya’s cities is by no means perfect, the country is hardly being torn apart. Internal displacement is still a nagging problem, but there is no diaspora. In fact, foreign refugees are coming through the country when they leave other North African nations. Public health is not in serious danger and infrastructure is largely repaired. Libya is by no means a stable democracy, but the quality of life is obviously much better for most Libyans than most Syrians.
To be sure, Libya is not Syria, and there are unique aspects to the Libyan conflict just like any other. Nor is this about an idealistic “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine that might require intervention in all sorts of humanitarian circumstances without a realist’s cautions about the limits of power. It’s just that the deaths of a quarter-million people simply ought to mean something, especially to people who claim to abhor the evils of war. Anyone who tells you that Syria is better off without American intervention is saying that those lives mean absolutely nothing to them.