As Libyan rebel forces surged into Muammar Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia compound on August 23, the reverberations of their celebratory gunfire were felt far beyond Tripoli.

 Throughout Libya, a new era was beginning, one full of opportunities and risks. Beyond Libya, citizens of Arab countries in which leaders have mounted vigorous and violent resistance to protests saw that it was indeed possible to overthrow an Arab leader even if much of his army stood by him. And for the international community, the fact that the NATO intervention enabled the rebels’ success raised questions anew about whether to entertain some form of military intervention in other countries, notably Syria.

In the initial phase of the Arab awakening, Tunisian President Ben Ali and Egyptian President Mubarak tumbled from power relatively quickly after their armed forces refused to fire on unarmed protestors, whereas in the second phase the leaders of several countries—Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain as well as Libya—employed lethal force to avoid being overthrown. Now in phase three the Libyans will provide the first model for a transition brought about by a hard-won military victory

Facing a post-Gaddafi transition, the Libyan balance sheet shows significant assets and liabilities. On the positive side, the Libyan rebels had enough time before they reached Tripoli to organize a transitional leadership and to make plans (including a draft interim constitution) for restoring security and beginning a political process culminating in elections. Libya’s oil wealth, tens of billions invested abroad in sovereign wealth funds, and population of only 6.5 million mean that once the new government can access those funds and restart oil production, it will be able to pay for the reconstruction and development (human as well as economic) that will be sorely needed after months of fighting and decades of bad governance. The population is relatively homogenous in terms of religion (Sunni Muslim) and ethnicity (mostly Arab with a small percentage of Berbers). And most of the Libyans now taking control have positive views of the United States, Europe, and NATO, which they see as allies in their hour of need. (Germany, Turkey, and China meanwhile are scrambling to repair the damage from their initial positions opposing international intervention, as the unseemly scramble for investment in the new Libya begins.) 

On the negative side of the ledger, Libya has almost none of the institutions needed for building a democracy—no parliament, free press, political parties, or civil society organizations—because Gaddafi explicitly banned them, and it has had even less experience with representative government than most other Arab countries. Although the transitional leadership has united to oppose Gaddafi, there are significant political fault lines (liberal vs. Islamist, tribal, and eastern vs. western), which are likely to re-emerge strongly and perhaps violently in the struggle to define the new Libya. Meanwhile the Western and Arab governments that aided the rebels might decide to favor different groups, feeding conflict whether inadvertently or not.

Regarding regional repercussions, aside from Gaddafi and his sons, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is probably the person most distressed by the sea change in Libya. Until now Bashar could direct Syrians’ attention westward toward the cautionary tale of internecine warfare and foreign military intervention that Libya represented. But in the coming weeks, Libya may come to symbolize something else to Syrians: the hope of overturning a ruthless regime with patience and some foreign help. And this after the Syrian regime suffered serious diplomatic setbacks in the form of the withdrawal of support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, explicit US and European calls for al-Assad to step down, and wide-ranging new sanctions (already in place from the United States and likely to be approved in Europe shortly). The heretofore silent Syrian upper middle class, as well as much of the armed forces, are realizing that it will no longer be possible to return to business as usual, let alone to make money, while Bashar remains.

The Libyan rebel victory also has implications for the international role in Syria’s slowly spreading uprising. One scenario for Syria to keep an eye out for is that parts of the armed forces might abandon al-Assad and begin fighting the Fourth Division headed by the president’s brother that has spearheaded the crackdown. Should a fight break out between poorly equipped rebel divisions and the elite division supporting al-Assad, the international community would have to consider backing up its rhetorical support for the uprising and sanctions with some form of military assistance to the rebels. It was difficult to imagine the international community taking on this role while NATO was bogged down in Libya, but such a scenario could materialize if the Libyan intervention is deemed a success.

As for Libya itself, it is entirely reasonable to expect a difficult transition there, one filled with risks and without a guaranteed democratic outcome. But most of the world’s democracies survived their own obstacle courses as they defined their identities and systems; should not the Libyans be entitled to do the same? Regarding the role of the United States and Europe, they neither started the fight in Libya nor ended it, but their assistance was essential and Libyans are unlikely to forget it. The imposition of a no-fly zone was absolutely essential, it must be remembered, to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and ruthless retribution by Gaddafi throughout the country. As fraught with risks as the road ahead for Libya looks, it is infinitely preferable to the dark place the country would be in now had the West failed to galvanize itself to save Benghazi.      

Michele Dunne is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.