Libya and Syria: A Tale of Two United Nations

Author: Mike Kriner, 2018.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 2.41.36 PM.png

“How are we to understand the inducement for the UN’s authorization to use force in Libya and the lack thereof in Syria?…”

Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.


How are we to understand the inducement for the UN’s authorization to use force in Libya and the lack thereof in Syria? Gilligan and Stedman (2003) propose a number of factors that increase the probability of UN intervention. This paper explores these factors and looks to apply them to the cases of Syria and Libya to see if the data indicate a higher/lower probability of UN-backed military intervention in each case. Although the data seem to support the lack of UN intervention in Syria thus far, there appear to be more questions that arise when looking at the case of Libya. At a comparative level, we might have expected the UN to have intervened in Syria already, but is Libya a special case?



Since its inception, the United Nations (UN) has been called upon numerous times to intervene in violent conflict. Through authorization from the UN Security Council (UNSC), the UN can authorize the use of force in the interest of maintaining or restoring international peace and security. In some cases, the UNSC has chosen to authorize such action while in others it has not. In the 21st Century alone, we have seen two cases where the UN has authorized military intervention in one context and not done so in another, the former in the case of Libya and the latter in the case of Syria. Both of these conflicts represent violent civil conflicts, however the UN response to these conflicts have been dissimilar. What induced the UN to authorize the use of force in Libya and why has the UN not yet authorized the use of force in Syria? Are there factors specific to each context which have led to these differing results?


Literature Review

A number of scholars have theorized about what induces the UN to intervene in violent conflict. Jakobsen finds there are five factors that determine the initiation of UN involvement: “a clear humanitarian and/or legal case, national interest, chance of success, domestic support and the CNN effect [(the media coverage a conflict receives tends to lead to greater attention and action)]” (205). Principally, Jakobsen found that:

A clear moral and/or legal case (unambiguous interstate aggression or massive human rights violations within a state) is present… Thus, it seems to be a necessary condition to generate the minimum of international support, cooperation among the members of the Security Council, that authorization of enforcement operations requires (Jakobsen, 205).

Mullenbach notes that Oudraat points more specifically to the permanent members (P5) of the UNSC: “The likelihood of UN intervention in an internal conflict, particularly during the post-Cold War period, is higher when one or more of the permanent members of the UN Security Council have national interests in the conflict” (Mullenbach, 536). Additionally, the UN is more likely to intervene when a member of the P5 “perceive[s] conflict to be a threat to international peace and security” (Ibid).

Townsen and Reeder found that the UN is more concerned with “government-rebel confrontations and those instances in which government or rebels attacked unarmed civilians” (69-70). Compared to the more international-level factors posited by previous scholars, they look to see if there are perhaps local-level factors that either “allow for, or deter peacekeeping deployments at specific locations within a country” (Townsen and Reeder, 70). In order to assess where peacekeepers are deployed, the authors look at five factors: “1) the location of violent events, 2) the availability of transportation networks, 3) the presence of international borders, 4) population density, and 5) the location of surface-based natural resources” (Townsen and Reeder, 72). An important point raised by Townsen and Reeder is that peacekeepers are unlikely to be deployed into contexts that are particularly dangerous and may result in significant casualties. “Such an event might undermine the mission by reducing international support, leading some countries to withdraw their troop contributions” (74). Although concerned with the success or failure of peacebuilding, Doyle and Sambanis also found a statistical link between “human misery created by the war…[and] PB [(peacebuilding)] success” (787).


Gilligan and Stedman- “Where Do the Peacekeepers Go?” and Hypothesis

Gilligan and Stedman (G&S), in their 2003 “Where Do the Peacekeepers Go?” conduct analyses to try to determine what factors are more likely to lead to a UN intervention. Although the authors are more specifically interested in understanding factors that impact where UN peacekeepers are sent, this paper will use their findings to explore the broader case of UN intervention, specifically the authorization for the use of force. According to the authors, “given various attempts to suggest criteria or benchmarks for humanitarian intervention, it is important to know which cases are selected for intervention in the absence of such criteria” (Gilligan and Stedman, 37). G&S elaborate the importance of this study because “the charter is silent on what constitutes a threat to international security, and the Security Council has shown enormous flexibility in invoking the language of threat to justify the deployment of peacekeepers” (Ibid, 37).

The authors look at ten variables to attempt to determine possible links to peacekeeper deployment. They evaluate these variables by using “survival time techniques. In other words, [their] dependent variable is the time elapsed (measured in years) until the UN intervenes in a given civil war” (Gilligan and Stedman, 42-3). The authors used these techniques “to predict the duration until the UN intervenes in a given civil war along with the hazard rate of UN intervention given various independent variables” (Ibid, 38). This allows the authors to explore a “threshold” of sorts, whereby if certain conditions are reached there is a greater probability of UN intervention. Using these techniques G&S discuss their four major findings (which are also graphically represented in Figure 1):

  1. The authors discovered their most robust finding to be that “the more severe a conflict, measured by the number of deaths, the more likely the United Nations is to intervene” (Gilligan and Stedman, 44).
  2. In addition to a higher probability of intervention in contexts of high casualties, G&S found that “the United Nations is significantly less likely to intervene in civil wars in countries with large government armies” (Gilligan and Stedman, 48).
  3. G&S find that “the probability of a UN intervention in a given war increases as the war drags on” (Gilligan and Stedman, 48).
  4. As to the location of where the UN intervenes, the authors found “evidence of regional bias in the UN’s selection of missions” with the worst bias occurring towards Asia (Ibid, 49).

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 2.06.47 PMFigure 1: Probability of UN Intervention under Various Conditions.”
(Title and graphic from Gilligan and Stedman, 48. Reproduced with permission.)


Based upon these four findings, the proposed initial hypothesis is that we will see that similar conditions are present in both the Libya and Syria cases. More specifically, the prediction is that, based on the factors and probabilities presented by G&S, the data will indicate a higher probability of UN-back military intervention in both countries. Although the UN has already intervened in Libya, it is expected the data will indicate that the UN should, probabilistically speaking, have already intervened in Syria.


Data and Methods

In order to test the hypothesis, both the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and World Bank battle death data will be used. ACLED data can be utilized for Libya as the time elapsed between the start of the civil war in 2011 and UN sanctioned intervention was a matter of months instead of years (“Libya Profile- Timeline”). Using this data also provides an added benefit that was not available to G&S, namely that we can explore the number of deaths up until the time the UN intervened as opposed to using data that encapsulate the number of deaths in the entire conflict. Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 and still continues to this day, the World Bank’s battle-related death data can be used since it contains yearly data available for this measure (additionally ACLED data is unavailable for Syria). To assess the size of the government military during the civil wars in Libya and Syria, this paper uses the Correlates of War Project’s (COW) National Material Capabilities dataset. This dataset contains information on the number of military personnel per country. Unfortunately, the data are only available until 2012; however, two years prior to the start of each violent conflict (from 2009 in both cases) are included in order to see if there was perhaps a build-up of forces before the start of each civil war.



Using descriptive statistics, we can explore the various factors proposed by G&S as they relate to Syria and Libya. As far as the duration of conflict is concerned, we see very dissimilar results when comparing the case of Libya and Syria. The Libyan civil war began in February 2011, when “violent protests [broke] out in Benghazi, spread to other cities, leading to escalating clashes between security forces and anti-Gaddafi rebels” (“Libya Profile- Timeline). Just one month later, in March 2011, the UNSC authorized “a no-fly zone over Libya and air strikes to protect civilians, over which NATO [assumed] command” (Ibid). Although the UN did not send peacekeepers under its own command, the organization did authorize military intervention. While intervention in Libya took only one month, the violent conflict in Syria has been decimating the country for over six years. The conflict began in March 2011 when “security forces [shot] dead protestors in [the] southern city of Deraa demanding the release of political prisoners, [which triggered] violent unrest that steadily spread nationwide over the following months” (“Syria Profile- Timeline”). To date, the UNSC has yet to authorize the use of military force, either by the UN itself in the form of peacekeepers or through other states/regional organizations, in Syria even though the country has been in the throes of civil conflict for much longer than in Libya when force was authorized.

When looked at in combination with the other factors, specifically the temporal dimension of the conflicts, the number of battle deaths that have occurred in each conflict provides an interesting point of comparison as it relates to UN intervention or non-intervention. As indicated, the number of battle-related deaths was the most robust finding in G&S’s research. “The coefficient on this variable was significant at the 5 percent level or better in a one-tailed test in all specifications” (Gilligan and Stedman, 44). Based on the timing of intervention in Libya, I explored the number of battle related deaths by month using available data from ACLED. The data is broken down by event, so I calculated the number of casualties per month, a summary of which can be found in Table 1.


Jan Feb March April May June July Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
0 936 914 340 860 197 286 1,466 546 572 24 6

Table 1: Battle-related deaths by Month in Libya, 2011 (Based on ACLED)


Given that the data are provided by day, I’ve calculated that there were a total of 1,306 battle-related deaths in Libya from February 2011 through 18 March 2011 (the day before UN-sanctioned NATO intervention began) (“NATO and Libya (Archived)”). Figure 2 provides a graphical representation of the number of battle deaths by month in Libya for the year 2011. The vertical red dotted line indicates the month (March) in which the UNSC authorized force to be used in Libya as well as the commencement of NATO operations within the country. Interestingly, the peak in violence in 2011 occurs in August about five months into NATO operations and six months after the onset of the civil war.  In the next month, the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) was approved through UNSC Resolution 2009 as “an integrated special political mission” (“Mandate”). For the purposes of comparing this case to Syria, I use the number of pre- NATO intervention battle-related deaths of 1,306.

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 2.09.00 PM

Figure 2: Battle-related deaths by Month in Libya, 2011 (Based on ACLED data.)


The battle-related death data for Syria stands in stark contrast to the Libya data. Table 2 provides the total number of battle deaths for the years 2011-2016.        Although the total number of deaths in Libya for the year of 2011 is much higher than in Syria (6,147 deaths in Libya in 2011 and 965 in Syria in 2011), we see that the number of battle deaths grows exponentially from 2011 to 2012. Based on battle deaths alone, and using the figure at which time the UN/NATO intervened in Libya, one might have expected the UN to authorize action in Syria at some point in 2012. This would be where the 1,306 “threshold” would have been crossed. Although not an authorization for the use of force, the UNSC, in March of 2012, did “endorse [a] non-binding peace plan drafted by UN envoy Kofi Annan. China and Russia agree[d] to support the plan after and earlier, tougher draft [was] modified” (“Syria Profile- Timeline). However, as we can see from the data, the peace plan has been ineffective in ending the violence within the country. In fact, the highest number of recorded deaths takes place in the year after the peace plan was endorsed (2013 with 69,068 battle deaths). Looking at battle deaths alone or in combination with the duration of the conflict and comparing to Libya, its begs the question as to why the UN has not yet intervened in Syria?


2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
965 38,500 69,086 57,529 46,643 44,303

Table 2: Battle-related deaths by Year in Syria (Based on World Bank data)


Next, I examined military personnel data for both Libya and Syria using the COW National Material Capabilities dataset. As mentioned, the data only include coverage until 2012, so it is not yet possible to examine past this year which would be particularly relevant for Syria. In comparing the available data between the two countries, the first item that stands out is the large difference in the number of military personnel between the two countries.  Between 2009-2011, Libya’s military strength as measured by the number of personnel remains constant at 76,000 (see Table 3) (COW). However, a Reuters article from Apps and Maclean argue that these figures may not tell the entire story. “Even before the uprising, Libya’s military strength was seen as having been seriously undermined by sanctions and neglect…Much of the equipment is seen as poorly maintained or unusable, leaving it hard to estimate genuine numbers” (Apps and Maclean). According to the authors, Gaddafi treated many of his military leaders poorly which led to perhaps a diminished number of “loyal” Libyan forces. “That leaves [Gaddafi] with what most estimate to be some 10-12,000 loyal Libyan troops” (Ibid). Using either the figure, there appears to be consensus that the strength of the Libyan military is rather low. Indeed, when looking at the mean number of military personnel for 2009-2011, Libya is consistently below the mean. It is also well below G&S’s “small army” case, which used a figure of 100,000.

Turing to the data on Syria, we see that the number of military personnel to be stronger than that of Libya. In fact, for the years 2009-2011, Syria’s number of military personnel is more than double that of Libya (see Table 3). It is substantially larger if we consider that the total number of loyal military forces in Libya may have only been 10-12,000 personnel. Syria is also well above the mean number of military personnel for each year, however the values are within one standard deviation of the mean in each year. This indicates the military in Syria is perhaps much stronger than that of the Libya which, according to G&S, has an effect on the probability of UN intervention.


Libya Syria
2009 76,000 293,000
2010 76,000 325,000
2011 76,000 295,000
2012 295,000

Table 3: Military Personnel by Country 2009-2011 (Based on COW National Material Capabilities data.)


Analysis and Discussion

What conclusions can we draw about the cases of Libya and Syria based on the factors explored by G&S? Although the number of battle deaths in Libya is much lower than that of Syria, the military strength of the Libyan army is also substantially lower. In Figure 1, we see that the probability of UN intervention in countries with small armies is much higher than all other conditions. While this may be the case, it doesn’t seem to completely explain the rapidness of UN intervention in Libya, occurring just about one month after the onset of the civil war. The probability of UN intervention in the small army case at year one is still less than 10%, although it is possible that since the number of military personnel in Libya is smaller than the 100,000 in the “small army” case, the probability could be higher. The number of battle deaths also does not seem to explain why the UN intervened so quickly, as the probability of UN intervention for this factor is not as steep as the small army factor and the number of battle deaths at the time of intervention is substantially under the conditions in the “hi deaths” scenario (see Figure 1 above, “hi deaths” refers to the scenario where the number of deaths is one standard deviation from the baseline case (Gilligan and Stedman, 44)). Even still, the probability for intervention at year one in the “hi deaths” scenario is close to zero. Looking at the data for Libya seems to produce more questions than answers. Of G&S’s factors, the only one that seems to fit is the small army, however it does not appear to explain why the UN intervened so quickly.

As for Syria, the factors proposed by G&S perhaps correctly point to reasons for the lack of UN intervention in Syria. If we look at the number of battle deaths as well as the duration of the conflict, there is perhaps an increased probability of UN intervention, but the factors present in Syria are still below G&S’s figures for these respective factors. The Syrian conflict has gone on for six years now which would increase the probability of intervention to about 13%. The total battle deaths to this point, 257,026, are below the figure they use for the “hi deaths” scenario, about 630,000 (Gilligan and Stedman, 44). Although the number of Syrian military personnel is higher than Libya, it is still a) within one standard deviation of the mean and b) fairly close to G&S’s baseline military figure of 246,000 (Ibid, 48). Although comparison of the two cases might lead one to conclude that the UN should have intervened in Syria at this point, the findings of G&S seem to indicate the probability of UN intervention may not be that high just yet. “In making its decisions, however, the organization responds to basic power considerations- both in terms of the importance that the Security Council places on different regions and in its reluctance to intervene in states that have greater lethal capacity” (Ibid, 51).

Based on the data, it seems we are left with more questions about the impetus for UN-supported military intervention in Libya. And although the G&S factors seem to support the lack of intervention by the UN in Syria, are there perhaps additional aspects of the conflict that should be considered? According to Kolmasova, when it came to Libya, “all UN officials unanimously labelled violence in the country as systematic, widespread and probably reaching the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity” (21). The author points to a number of factors that led to an “unprecedentedly firm” response from the UN and, more specifically, the UNSC (Ibid, 21).

A series of hateful threats by Gaddafi addressed to his opponents, and to Libyan civilians in general, swiftly got the attention of the media… Western countries could easily use this situation to demonstrate their own commitment to democratic principles, the protection of human rights in particular. As neither China nor Russia had any special interest in Libya, they both adopted the pragmatic position not to block international sanctions. Finally, the absence of regional allies made forceful measure passable (Ibid, 21).

Kolmasova’s point regarding the media attention is highlighted in Jakobsen’s study which looked at the effect of the media and found that “the CNN effect…does appear to be a necessary condition for humanitarian enforcement, but…it is wrong to regard it as a sufficient condition” (Jakobsen, 212). The initial resolution concerning the Libya, Resolution 1970, called “on state authorities to fulfill their responsibility and protect their own citizens,” imposed sanctions, and referred the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Kolmasova, 22). However, it was Resolution 1973 that “authorized all necessary means to protect Libyan people…to provide protective measures” (Ibid, 22). The author notes that this second resolution was “more problematic” and that the voting in the UNSC “was more divided, yet none of the PM used the veto to block the resolutions” (Ibid, 22). In light of the studies referenced earlier in this paper, we see that a variety of factors were present in the Libyan case that, in addition to the diminutive government army, may have made UN intervention in the violent conflict more likely than the data indicate.

Although the data seem to support the lack of intervention by the UN, some have argued that there are other important considerations when trying to understand the situation. “The case of Syria demonstrates that the UNSC, mandated to contain conflict, has itself emerged as an arena of conflict and clash of geopolitical visions” (Mahapatra, 62). Mahapatra sees the inaction on the part of the UNSC in the case of Syria more as a case of geopolitics than a matter of the actual events transpiring in the country. “The action of inaction of the council depends on whether a particular situation is tangential or core to the concern of a permanent member or a group of members” (a sentiment echoed by Oudraat) (Ibid, 42). Kolmasova appears to agree, stating that the crisis in Syria “pushed the debate…with more complicated political circumstances making any forceful protection of civilians practically impossible” (24). For Kolmasova, the geopolitical clash is between the West on one side and Russia and Iran on the other.

The Western states, led by France, the UK and the US condemned the regime and pushed for harder measures ranging from economic sanctions to an arms embargo to indictment of the ICC. On the other hand, the Syrian government was consistently supported by Russia and Iran due to strategic economic (arms trade) and regional interests (25).

Mahapatra also points out that China has joined Russia in opposing “any external intervention” and both countries have voted as such in the UNSC (Mahapatra, 54). Even though the data indicate a smaller probability of intervention by the UN, it may also be important to look at other factors when attempting to understand the specifics of a particular case.



The hypothesis proved to be incorrect in that the cases of Libya and Syria are not similar and also that the data do not yet point to an increased probability of UN intervention in Syria. The data also do not seem to indicate a high probability of intervention in Libya at the time of UN-sanctioned intervention. Using G&S’s framework regarding factors that contribute to the likelihood of UN intervention, this paper attempted to understand the authorization of military intervention in Libya and the lack thereof in Syria. On the one hand, Libya’s small government army and location in Africa may have made intervention in this context more likely. However, the number of battle-related deaths is much lower when compared either to the Syrian context or G&S’s baseline case, yet intervention still took place. Additionally, the UN authorized intervention after only about a month of conflict, the probability of which is only around ten percent. In Syria, we see a larger government military force which could be a factor limiting intervention. Although the number of battle-related deaths is exponentially higher, it still may not have reached a level that would increase the probability of UN intervention. While the UN intervened in Libya within months of the commencement of the civil war, the war in Syria has gone on for over six years without authorization for the use of force, even though the war has been more deadly. In the end, I find that the analysis of the data provides more context for understanding the lack of intervention in Syria than it does support for UN intervention in Libya. Comparing the two cases, however, would lead one to question why the UN has not yet intervened in Syria given the context of UN intervention in Libya.



Works Cited

Apps, Peter and William Maclean. “Factbox: Libya’s military: What does Gaddafi have left?” Reuters, 1 March 2011 Accessed 9 November 2017.

Balcells, Laia and Lionel Beehner. “Dynamics of Violence in the Syrian Civil War.” Workshop on the Syrian Conflict November 2013.

“Battle-related deaths (number of people) 1989-2016.” World Bank Group data Accessed 9 November 2017

Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice. United Nations Publications, New York (2015).

Doyle, Michael W. and Nicholas Sambanis. “International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis.” The America Political Science Review, 94:4 (2000), 779-801

Fortna, Virginia Page. “Does Peacekeeping Keep Peace? International Intervention and the Duration of Peace After Civil War.” International Studies Quarterly, 48 (2004): 269-292

Fortna, Virginia Page and Lise Morje Howard. “Pitfalls and Prospects in the Peacekeeping Literature.” Annual Review of Political Science, (2008), 283-301.

Gilligan, Michael and Stephen John Stedman. “Where Do the Peacekeepers Go?” International Studies Review, 5:4 (2003), 37-54

Howard, Lise Morje. UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars. Cambridge University Press, December 2007.

Jakobsen, Peter Viggo. “National Interest, Humanitarianism or CNN: What Triggers UN Peace Enforcement after the Cold War?” Journal of Peace Research, 33:2 (1996), 205-215

Kolmasova, Sarka. “Inconsistencies between Libya and Syria? Pragmatic Revisionism and the Responsibility to Protect.” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, 10:2, 10-32.

“Libya profile- Timeline” BBC Accessed 9 November 17.

Mahapatra, Debidatta Aurobinda. “The Mandate and the (In)Effectiveness of the United Nations Security Council and International Peace and Security: The Contexts of Syria and Mali.” Geopolitics, 21:1 (2016), 43-68.

“Mandate” UNSMIL Accessed 28 November 2017

Mullenbach, Mark J. “Deciding to Keep Peace: An Analysis of International Influences on the Establishment of Third-Party Peacekeeping Missions.” International Studies Quarterly, 49:3 (2005), 529-555

“NATO and Libya (Archived)” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Accessed 19 November 2017

Raleigh, Clionadh, Andrew Linke, Håvard Hegre and Joakim Karlsen. 2010. Introducing ACLED – Armed Conflict Location and Event Data, in Journal of Peace Research, 47(5) 651-660.

Singer, J. David. 1987. “Reconstructing the Correlates of War Dataset on Material Capabilities of States, 1816-1985” in International Interactions, 14: 115-32.

“Syria profile- Timeline” BBC  Accessed 9 November 2017

Townsen, Ashly Adam and Bryce W. Reeder. “Where Do Peacekeepers Go When They Go? Explaining the Spatial Heterogeneity of Peacekeeping Deployments.” Journal of International Peacekeeping, 18 (2014): 69-91.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s