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Libya after Gaddafi

Posted by seumasach on July 5, 2011

Victor Kotsev

Asia Times

6th July, 2011

TEL AVIV – Should the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) disband the Libyan security forces and army, like the United States did, controversially, in Iraq, or should it preserve them and hope that their loyalties will switch? Apparently, this is a question worrying top British officials, as Bloomberg reported recently [1].

That contingency plans for Libya’s future, once Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is removed, have advanced so far, is hardly a surprise; neither is the indirect suggestion that the Western-led alliance would then face a quagmire trying to pacify the country. What is significant is that those discussions are now becoming increasingly public, indicating a surprising confidence that Gaddafi’s fate is sealed.

Given the realities on the ground and the ever-increasing signs of
NATO’s desperation, this show of confidence could mean one of two or three things. It could be a bluff, perhaps designed to put pressure on Gaddafi to “retire” [2]. Such a bluff is strengthened by the thus far unsuccessful, but also increasingly public, campaign to assassinate the colonel. Not long ago, American Admiral Samuel J Locklear became probably the first NATO official to admit that the alliance is actively targeting the Libyan leader [3].

Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Tuesday that Gaddafi had indeed agreed to step down. However, so far there has been no other confirmation of this, and meanwhile the rebels retracted their offer for him to stay in the country if he surrenders power [4].

It is hard to imagine such an agreement being implemented successfully, particularly after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for crimes against humanity for him and a couple of others. The fate of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who went into exile under similar circumstances but was eventually betrayed by Nigeria, is surely fresh on Gaddafi’s mind.

Louis Moreno-Ocampo, ICC’s chief prosecutor, promptly poured oil into the fire. “Gaddafi will face charges,” he said soon after the warrants were announced. “The arrest warrants are not going away … I don’t think we will have to wait for long.”

A bluff could also serve to pay lip service to hardliners among the alliance (the French government comes to mind) and the rebels, while preparing to settle for much less. In this scenario, a partition of Libya would be in the works, into a western part ruled by the colonel and an eastern part under the rebels’ control.

However, this option also faces considerable obstacles. In the long term, it suits neither the rebels (who do a poor job of covering up their weaknesses and who would thus constantly feel threatened) nor Gaddafi (who would likely wait for an opportune time to try to retake the east by force), and can be expected at best to be a temporary solution, a way for NATO to cut its losses.
Western officials are unlikely to be thrilled by the idea, either: for, once they declared that Gaddafi “must go”, accepting anything less will mean acknowledging a defeat. We can expect France – playing the bad cop in this arrangement – to resist this outcome vehemently.

It does not help that the battlelines are far from neat, and there are considerable pockets of rebel territory in the west, specifically around the coastal city of Misurata. This would make any division of the country difficult and messy, to say the least. It would increase the chances of a subsequent flare-up of violence.

Alternatively, NATO could be in the final preparation stages for a ground invasion of Libya; numerous analysts, including Russian government officials, have speculated for months that this is where the war is going.

A week or so ago, the air campaign passed the 100-day mark, and significant cracks are already visible in the coalition. Italy has threatened to pull out, ostensibly due to the heavy toll on civilians that the bombings are causing. The heated congressional debates in the United States betray little overall political appetite for further military action. Reports claim that some British officials, too, are becoming hesitant about the war. Costs are mounting. According to most assessments, it would be difficult for NATO to continue the campaign much past the end of the summer.

On the ground, the stalemate continues. Despite frequent reports of advances, the rebels seem unable to pose any significant threat to Gaddafi’s rule in the capital Tripoli. Time is not on their side, and not only due to NATO’s constraints: a growing number of reports question their own credibility and war crimes records as well as those of Gaddafi. If the deadlock is not broken relatively soon, they risk being both defeated and discredited, and their Western backers face a thorough humiliation.

In a so far vain attempt to break the stalemate, in the past weeks and months NATO has steadily increased its involvement, undertaking a series of steps that critics say threaten to eventually drag it into a ground operation. First it came out that former British special operations soldiers, privately hired by Qatar, were on the ground helping the rebels and guiding NATO aircraft onto targets.

Rumors have it that current special operations forces are active as well. Then the alliance sent in attack helicopters. Finally, last week France confirmed that it had air-dropped weapons to the rebels, “so that civilians would not be massacred” [5].

The supplying of weapons is a particularly problematic step, since the United Nations resolutions that address the Libyan crisis include an arms embargo on the country that arguably includes the rebels. The latter point is subject to intense debate, and NATO has enlisted several legal experts who claim that the weapons transfer is legal as long as the arms are used for defense, but parts of the international community reacted furiously. The African Union accused NATO of destabilizing Libya and neighboring African states [6].

Legal subtleties aside, the weapons drop in the Nafusa mountains seems anything but benign and defensive. Suffice it to mention that this is the only front where the rebels have been clearly successful in the past weeks, if mostly because Gaddafi’s forces pulled out without much resistance. The mountain rebels are very different from their brothers-in-arms in the two other rebel enclaves (around Misurata in the west and in the eastern part of the country), and it is likely that Gaddafi judged them not to have much incentive to threaten him.

In early June, the influential American think-tank Stratfor wrote:

The Nafusa Mountain rebels are oriented more toward Tunisia for their line of supply than toward the sea, as rebels in Misurata and Benghazi are. STRATFOR sources in Libya report that although a supply network connects Benghazi to the rebel positions in the mountains – using Tunisian ports and land routes as a conduit – the sheer distance and logistical difficulty makes the connection tenuous. The Berbers historically have had poor relations with Gaddafi, an Arab who sought to suppress their ethnic identity. Therefore, they openly support the cause espoused by the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council – to oust Gaddafi and reunify the country with Tripoli as its capital – but their primary focus is on maintaining autonomy in their home territory, not seizing Tripoli.

In light of this, the French air drop looks very much like incitement, even a bribe – a far from subtle push on the Nafusa Berbers to attack Gaddafi harder. The suspicions are strengthened further by the fact that the mountain rebels launched an offensive against Tripoli around the same time as the French announcement was made, only to be beaten back last Friday near the town of Bir al-Ghanam.

There is nothing defensive in such a scheme. Not only does it appear to be a brazen violation of the UN mandate for the campaign, but it would signal France’s desperation and willingness to go to any length to take Gaddafi out.

If the rebels do not defeat the colonel soon, as they seem to be incapable of doing, the only way to remove him would be to insert NATO troops on the ground. This would be an even clearer violation of the UN mandate, but it would be only a short step further legally from what the allies are currently doing.

The colonel also seems to be preparing for this eventuality. A few days ago, he issued a pointed threat. “We advise you to retreat before you face a catastrophe,” he said in a telephone address broadcast to a large crowd in Tripoli. “If we decide, we can also move it [the war] to Europe, to target your homes, offices, families, which would become legitimate military targets, like you have targeted our homes.” [7]

In light of all this, it seems that a ground invasion of Libya is a very serious, even likely possibility. The question of what would happen afterwards, addressed in part by the debates on the fate of the government’s security forces, is a legitimate one. In fact, it can be argued that NATO’s real Libyan quagmire would only begin once Gaddafi is removed.

“I think Gaddafi’s removal is inevitable, but I haven’t heard much about what comes after,” writes Harvard’s renowned international affairs expert Stephen Walt. “Given that our stated motivation was humanitarian, doesn’t NATO have a responsibility to ensure a benevolent aftermath? And how much will that cost?” [8]

It is far from clear that a rebel rule of Libya, particularly if it comes at the barrels of NATO guns, will serve the humanitarian cause well. Even if we assume the rebels to be well-intentioned and disciplined, we can expect a protracted, if low-intensity at best, civil war.

There are so many weapons of different calibers circulating freely in the country that pacifying it would likely be a Sisyphean task. NATO officials have already acknowledged that the alliance may need to send in peacekeeping forces after Gaddafi goes.

Nor is the assumption that the rebels are benign a safe one. A recent report by two French think-tanks claims that they are undemocratic and extremist [9]. The UN has accused them, as well as Gaddafi, of committing war crimes in the fighting. [10] There is evidence that they have used land mines in their operations. [11]

Other, unconfirmed reports, make even more extravagant claims, [12] raising the possibility that NATO’s desperate actions may in fact be an attempt to silence the evidence of war crimes committed by its own rebel allies. Whether this is true or not, the Libyan quagmire is complete, and there are no signs of it getting better in the foreseeable future.

1. Libyan Soldiers May Stay Post-Qaddafi as NATO Allies Cite Lesson From Iraq , Bloomberg, 30 June 2011.
2. Libyan rebels say Col Gaddafi can retire in Libya if he steps down, The Daily Telegraph, 3 July 2011.
3. Exclusive: Top U.S. admiral admits we are trying to kill Qaddafi, Foreign Policy, 24 June 2011.
4. Turkey recognises Libya rebels, al-Jazeera, 3 July 2011.
5. France confirms arming Libyan rebels, al-Jazeera, 29 June 2011.
6. African concern over Libya arms drops, al-Jazeera, 30 June 2011.
7. Defiant Gaddafi threatens Europe, al-Jazeera, 2 July 2011.
8. Going off the grid… , Foreign Policy, 28 June 2011.
9. Libya’s anti-Kadhafi rebels no democrats, report claims, RFI, 14 June 2011.
10. Libya conflict: UN accuses both sides of war crimes, BBC, 1 June 2011.
11. Libya conflict: Rebels accused of reneging on mines vow, BBC 19 April 2011. 12. The Ugly Truth: Video of Libyan Rebel Beheading Gadhaffi Soldier and other NATO War Crimes , Indy Bay, 23 June 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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