COMMENTARY
 
Stalemate over Libya
Weekly Pulse
8-14 April 2011
When allied planes started heavy bombardment of military targets in Libya in late March and rebel forces made rapid advancement thereafter, it appeared that the days of the Qaddafi regime were numbered. Not anymore. The battle between anti-Qaddafi armed rebels and forces loyal to the Libyan leader has effectively entered a stalemate.

As of early April, the coastal town of Brega in the east, the site of the country’s largest oil terminal, had changed hands, and the rebels were struggling to retake it from Qaddafi forces. The Libyan regime was well entrenched in Tripoli, western part of the country, until Brega in the east. Rebel hopes of capturing Qaddafi’s hometown Sirt were dashed, and rumours of a massacre in the western city of Misrata abound.

Sadly, all of this—including the current stalemate following rebels’ military quick reversals within days after speedy victories in the battle—has occurred during the time of NATO’s airstrikes as part of its UN-mandated mission to implement a non fly zone over Libya.

Amid this stalemate, there are some factors supporting the National Transitional Council of the rebel forces and others favouring the Qaddafi regime. Each passing day seems to make the outcome of the battle for Libya more complex and uncertain. It is increasingly unclear which side will gain or lose more from the current stalemate.

Factors supporting the Transitional Council in Benghazi and rebel forces on the battlefield include the widening international support to them, including promises of financial aid and military aid and training, in addition to the continued air bombardment.

President Obama is believed to have signed a memo allowing US Special Forces to undertake covert operations inside Libya. Rebels are also said to be receiving training on how to use sophisticated arms they receive through Egyptian border and also on how to direct from ground the allied warplanes towards their intended military targets.

The Qaddafi regime, thus, is not just confronting a political opposition and its armed wing but also an entire military bloc of the Western world conducting air operations in Libyan skies with the legitimacy acquired for the purpose from the UN Security Council, especially its resolution 1973.

A host of economic sanctions and arms embargo imposed on it under UN Security Council resolution 1970, which also legitimised the freezing of the country’s financial assets in foreign banks, are likely to have devastating effects in coming days and weeks. Recent desertions of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa and other ministers of the Qaddafi regime indicate the weakening resolve of the regime to withstand growing pressure from domestic and external forces.

Only time will tell us whether President Qaddafi in particular and the ruling junta under him in general will be able to survive the simultaneous pressure from internal armed rebellion enjoying NATO air cover and the tightening of noose around it by some of the powerful world players and at least three influential Arab countries, including Egypt, UAE and Qatar.

If not anything else, the scarcity of food and oil in Tripoli and other towns of the west under Qaddafi’s control may increase public agony to the extent of leading to an armed rebellion there as well against the regime.

Or, all of the above may have an opposite effect altogether, and it is just one of the possibilities that favour the Qaddafi regime, and go against its opponents and their external backers. One of the familiar outcomes of a military campaign led by Western countries in the Arab world is the nationalist fervour it tends to generate, enabling the suppressive rulers to regain lost public legitimacy.

The longer such campaign runs its course, the greater chances there are of unintended civilian casualties. The Qaddafi regime has already started to make use of a handful of such instances, whether they actually occurred is disputable.

Through its propaganda machinery, Tripoli should be expected to stir patriotic passions whenever any civilian or rebel target is mistakenly hit by allied airstrikes, as has reportedly been the case recently. Likewise, the public misery resulting from UN sanctions in the form of acute shortage of food and oil supplies will be exploited by the Libyan regime to turn the tide of the battle in its favour.

Musa Ibrahim, the all-too familiar spokesman of the Qaddafi regime, can keep denying that Libyan forces are not targeting civilians, and that the talk of a massacre in Misrata is sheer media propaganda. He can claim so, as there is no independent world authority like the International Red Cross present on the ground to verify it.

At the same time, Colonel Qaddafi and his henchmen in Tripoli have started to make smart diplomatic moves, as the battle drags further and divisions in the Western alliance become more apparent.

The domino effect of the democratic upsurge across the Arab world has been extended so widely that while the Obama Administration is not fully grasped the new political realities in Tunisia and Egypt, far more challenging scenarios have kept emerging elsewhere in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Moreover, the United States is already deeply engaged in stabilizing Iraq and defeating insurgency in Afghanistan that it cannot afford to proactively intervene in multiple crises, especially leading another war meant to dislodge a Muslim regime.

In fact, the earlier expectation that democratization of the Arab world have a promising possibility of reducing widespread anti-Americanism in the region is increasingly questionable now, as Washington is seen to be sponsoring armed rebels of Libya at the same time as it completely ignores the democratic aspirations of the peaceful protestors of Yemen and Bahrain for purely strategic reasons.

The moral dilemma for the United States arising from this unquestionable practice of double standard in its policy towards the wave of democratization across the Arab world couples with the excesses being committed by the French forces in particular as they clearly exceed the limits imposed by UN Security Council resolution 1973 in implementing the no fly zone over Libya.

The UN mandate specifically states that the aim of the no fly zone is to protect civilians, and not to provide air cover to the rebels as means to facilitate their military push against Qaddafi forces.

The United States has chosen to be a part of NATO operations, after withdrawing its lead role in the beginning as the Pentagon is unwilling, and logically so, to shift its focus from the war in Afghanistan and the chaos in Iraq to a battlefront where it expects its European allies to do the job.

Meanwhile, as stated before, the Qaddafi regime has begun its diplomatic move to benefit from differences in the Western alliance—dispatching its acting Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi to Greece, Malta and Turkey, as well as another envoy to Britain with offers of reforms being promised by Qaddafi’s son, Saif el-Islam, and a conditional ceasefire.

The recent London conference over Libya may have created a consensual world opinion on the need for the removal of Qaddafi regime as the ultimate choice for putting the oil-rich North African state on the course to democracy. However, as situation on the ground and diplomatic moves by Tripoli suggest, actually realising this goal is proving difficult.

In their behind-the-scene diplomatic manoeuvres, the Libyan authorities might be playing the oil card; for instance, offering lucrative contracts to British Petroleum. However, their overt diplomatic moves are clearly aimed at using old allies like Turkey and Greece to facilitate a political compromise.

Which side gains an upper hand in this battle of wits and guns should be clear soon; or, else, Libya experiences the same civil war or tribal conflict as has afflicted Iraq and Somalia following foreign intervention or a Bosnia-like quagmire at best, where no fly zone and arms embargo proved a façade.

Even if Qaddafi is to lose in the end, the future of Libya may still hang in the balance, as there is an extent to which the rag tag of rebels riding pickup trucks and largely unknown faces of their transitional leadership, with reported presence of al-Qaeda in the ranks, can be trusted insofar as the country’s quest for democracy is concerned.

Beyond Libya, the current international operation in Libya carries serious implications for the principles governing the conduct of inter-state relations. For under international law, the legitimate authority in Libya is the government led by Colonel Qaddafi. It is the Transitional Council which has no legitimacy to conduct an armed rebellion in a sovereign state. Nor does the UN Security Council resolution 1973 permit NATO to unilaterally extend its no fly zone mission from the lawful goal of protecting civilians to the unlawful objective of supporting the rebels.

Access this commentary at weeklypulse.org