As the conflict in Libya drags on, it is becoming increasingly clear that as with most armed conflicts of the last 100 years, a bombing campaign will not ‘succeed’ (success in this case being the removal from power of Muammar Qaddafi). Having secured a United Nations resolution for ‘all necessary measures’ to protect Libyan civilians from their government, NATO began air strikes which had an immediate effect on Qaddafi’s forces. Then again, they were easy pickings in Libya’s vast deserts, chasing the ‘rebel’ forces aligned with the National Transitional Council east towards the putative capital of Benghazi. It doesn’t take a military genius to work out that once Qaddafi’s forces & arms reached population centres such as Tobruk and Misurata, bombing, no matter how surgical, is going to endanger the civilians the planes were sent to protect.
Resolution 1973 is the clearest indication yet that the international community is willing to implement the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”. Military intervention is not the beginning of “R2P”; it is the last resort. The responsibility to prevent is crucial. It was clear for weeks before the conflict escalated that Qaddafi would not go willingly. Any hope of negotiating with Qaddafi, or his son, Saif, was doomed by pushing them into a corner. I am not saying that it was feasible or even wise; but Qaddafi rules because he is rat cunning and controls tribes. He is no Mubarak, a ‘strongman’ whose power was based on more readily understood (to the Western observer) military structures. Libyan society, like much of the region, is based firstly on tribe, family, and blood. The TNC is a collective of Western Libyan tribes. Qaddafi’s power is drawn from Sirte, his tribal home, yes; but also from Tripoli. With a population of 2 million in a country of 6 million, with Tripoli goes Libya. At the height of its surge west, the TNC reportedly came close to taking Tripoli (many Western media outlets breathlessly and prematurely reporting Qaddafi’s end was nigh). And this is where it all went pear-shaped. While there may have been broad support for getting rid of Qaddafi, he stared them down, fairly frothing at the mouth from a balcony, doing what he does best. Cornered, he blamed everyone from al-Qaeda spiking the Kool-Aid to his old enemies in the West for the uprising. I’m sad to say I called his strategy. Libyans, particularly Tripoli residents, remember the American raids of 1986 after the Berlin nightclub bombing and other outrages. The targeting of his compound killed an infant girl, who Qaddafi claimed was his adopted child. Qaddafi reverted from the prodigal son role he had played to win redemption with the European powers & United States in the wake of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. He galvanised his army, the tribes still paying fealty to their lord and did as he has done for 40 years: fight. As the rebels withdrew, the international community prevaricated. By the time the first planes were in the air, it was all but too late.
The National Transition Council is recognised as the legitimate government of Libya by three Member States of the United Nations – France, Italy & Qatar. For the other 189, it is the opposition, including Britain, Australia and the United States – for all of our huffing and puffing. The Arab League, at first supportive of the no-fly zone, withdrew it almost immediately. The ‘Mad Colonel’ happily posed for photos with an African Union delegation dispatched to mediate between the warring sides. They were then treated with contempt by the TNC (given the AU’s rapprochement with the self-proclaimed ‘Lion of Africa’, who could blame them?). In the early days of the insurrection, there was the farcical discovery of what appeared to be British Special Forces on the ground. They were rejected, and ejected by the TNC. NATO has not been able to dislodge Qaddafi, and unless there is a change of tactics, they won’t be able to. What now? An ignominious choice: to prevent the wholesale slaughter of residents of Eastern Libya – the real and present danger put to the UN under Resolution 1973 – they must do one of two things – negotiate a ceasefire and enter the country with peacekeeping forces, as the UN and French have done most recently in Côte d’Ivoire; or arm the rebels to ‘level the playing field’.
There are several problems with both strategies. Firstly, Qaddafi has said he will negotiate along the lines of the plan put to both sides by the AU. The sticking point: the TNC will not entertain any plan which does not remove Qaddafi from power. The risk is the rebels are over-run; already fighting street-by-street in Misurata, Ajdabiya shelled and without effective air support from NATO, this is a real possibility. The pay-off is a true balls-to-the-wall gamble: that the international community will respond by putting boots on the ground. Perhaps that is why, as I write, the US is spinning into overdrive, trying to find an African country to provide an African solution – play host to Qaddafi in exile. God knows where, and at what price? Every effort must be made to strike a compromise. The TNC must understand that the West has no stomach for another war. President Obama would kiss a second term goodbye, and with wars in Iraq & Afghanistan still very much open sores, it is not going to happen, as UK PM David Cameron has today made perfectly clear.
While there are rumblings from the US and Britain about responding to the cries of the TNC and breaking the blanket arms embargo enforced by the UN to arm the rebels, it is, in my opinion, stupid in the extreme. Firstly, NATO Commander Admiral James Stavridis has stated that the Mad Colonel may not be entirely wide of the mark. As veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson reported on 29 March 2011 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12901820), intelligence has shown ‘flickers’ of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah activity. Secondly, the rebel army is far from one. The fighters are undoubtedly committed, but untrained civilians used to shooting semi-automatics at best. NATO (or whichever body broke the embargo) would be arming groups of young men who may in turn seek to inflict terror on those loyal to Qaddafi, whether they are true believers, paid protestors or foreign workers, lured by the promise of the oilfields, and marked as mercenaries. The rebels are already rigging up ‘Mad Max’-style adapted light weapons. Thirdly, Libya is subject to an arms embargo. Breaching it is illegal and sets such a reckless precedent that attempts to control the trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) or respect other embargoes will be laughed at. Finally, Libya’s borders are porous. Here is where we really gear up for the frightening prospect of a steady supply of arms flowing through Libya to Tunisia and Algeria on the east; south to its former foe, Chad; or west, to Egypt and Sudan. Do we really want more weapons in these post-conflict zones?
Already, the rebels are claiming to have seized weapons from pro-Qaddafi forces made in Israel, while Qatar is suspected of shipping anti-aircraft guns to the rebels. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the embargo has only been reinforced this year, being lifted in 2004 after pressure from the Italians in particular. According to www.defencetalk.com, Russia had an order book from Libya worth 1.5b euros; official EU data for exports in 2009 show Italy exported weapons worth 205m Euros, followed by France (€143m); Malta (€80m); Germany (€57m); Britain (€53m) and Portugal (€21m). The US was not to be left behind: according to Reuters, representatives of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon Co. visited Libya as members of trade delegations. South Africa also saw a piece of the Libyan action: its National Conventional Arms Committee annual report for 2010 showed the country sold R70m in arms last year. Manufacturer Denel has denied sales, but a leaked memo outlined a visit to Libya in April involving the planned sale of artillery systems, missiles, grenade launchers and anti-materiel rifles (www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/SA-sold-R70m-weapons-to-Libya-20110410)
Now, the West is bombing an army it armed, much as it did in Iraq. Reading over the articles of Qaddafi’s ‘rehabilitation’, it seems so long ago; now, those guns are involved in bloody civil conflict. They fall into the hands of the rebels, who shoot back with the same small arms & fire the same light weapons. Mistakes in the name of greed and guns have already been made. Tilting the balance in the conflict by arming the rebels presents moral hazards the world cannot afford to entertain.