The Arab Spring continues to taint its dreamt-about victories with nightmares, the latest being the shocking death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Even beyond the truly troubling aspects of his death and possible execution at the hands of the Libyan rebels, the disgusting display of his corpse for Libyans to view may have implications that reach far beyond Libya’s borders. While he may finally be buried, the images of his body aren’t going away so easily.
In fact, the act of disgracefully displaying Gaddafi’s dead body, combined with his disturbing death, may even bring about the deaths of thousands across the region. That leaves the West in an essential and complicated role as the Arab Spring continues.
The resounding refrain in the moments after Gaddafi’s death was that other dictators in the region have been “put on notice.” That’s true, but not the way the West was hoping, as justice was tossed aside for vindictive vengeance.
Instead of seeing that brutality cannot win out, the lesson Gaddafi’s shocking demise likely taught other dictators is that the Arab Spring protesters will show no mercy. So for those such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, it’s kill or be killed.
True, Assad didn’t need any extra convincing in that regard. But finding a way to negotiate out of the situation is made much more difficult thanks to the brutal way in which Gaddafi died and was displayed. Reaching a deal with Assad himself is still possible—maybe Iran or Venezuela or some other dictatorship will be open to hosting him if he steps down from power, thereby preserving his life and the lives of many more in Syria by ending the conflict.
But that’s made less likely due to Gaddafi’s death for one reason: the elite in Syria. It’s not Assad pulling the trigger on defenseless protesters. He’s not the one on the ground overseeing the deployment of tanks in cities. It’s his generals, security officials and government ministers who are carrying out his evil orders. And getting them out of Syria is much, much harder than Assad.
Why does that matter? Because in Syria, the ruling elite aren’t just a minority. The Alawite ruling religious ethnicity counts for less than 16 percent of the population, according to the CIA’s World Factbook website. That means that they stand little chance of defending themselves if they lose power. The aftermath in Libya bears this out—Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into the possible execution of 53 apparent Gadaffi supporters all found rotting in a hotel.
Wives, children, relatives and friends are all at risk. Every leader who has played a part in the vicious crackdown on the protesters could be sentenced to execution. And if they’re going down, does it seem likely that they would facilitate Assad’s exiting the country?
Prior to the shocking death of Libya’s leader and his supporters, the hope that the protestors might show mercy, might forgive those who agree to end the bloodshed, had to have been higher. Even if execution was pending for all those behind the massacres in Syria, at least they could arrogantly die with honor and claim martyrdom.
But Gaddafi? He died with no honor, no pride and no dignity. Now the murderous officials in Damascus and elsewhere have to fear not only what will happen to them while they’re alive, they must fear what happens to them after they die.
That’s not to say Gaddafi didn’t deserve that demise. The brutality with which he ruled Libya, the dozens he murdered in terror attacks, all demanded justice. Despite that, justice and vengeance aren’t the same thing.
That leaves the West in a complex position: Are they prepared to militarily intervene in every conflict? Because the remaining dictators and their elite aren’t going to step aside for justice’s sake.
The West and the Arab League can also try to find creative ways to arrange some sort of deal acceptable to the ruling powers that will end their violence against the protesters. Unfortunately, that may make even genuine justice impossible and could make the West even more hated on the street as the Arab Spring revolution continues.
The situation in Yemen is the next one that appears to be reaching its end, and how it turns out will be crucial in the attempt to undo what Libya’s rebels have done. The West and the Arab League must carefully work with the protesters to ensure that justice, not brutality, carries the day once the ruling powers step down—assuming they finally do.
Unless President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen can carry out a successful and relatively revenge-free transition from power, the horrific Gaddafi’s images are going to haunt the sleep of Assad and every other dictator in the region.
And tragically, that means that the nightmare of Syrian tanks and helicopters opening fire on their own civilians is likely to last even longer.
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, October 26, 2011)