Crisis in Libya
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The crisis in Libya comes in the context of wider unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The surge of what looks like spontaneous and ground up pro-democracy protests has been spreading throughout a region long controlled by authoritarian regimes from left and right of the political spectrum, and both pro and anti-West.
Since Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi came into power over 40 years ago in a coup, he has been seen as an international pariah and his brutal willingness to kill civilians that threaten his position has been clear for all to see. Yet, until the recent crisis, the West had been opening up to him and was keen to do (mostly oil and some arms) business with him — as they have been with various others in the region.
Peaceful protests against the Qadhafi regime in February resulted in a violent crackdown. As the situation quickly escalated ordinary citizens took up arms to help free themselves from Qadhafi’s brutal regime. Despite some military defections, the opposition has generally been a disorganized and out-gunned rebel force.
As Qadhafi’s forces increasingly targeted civilians the opposition appealed to the international community for a no-fly zone to limit or prevent the bloodbath that Qadhafi threatened.
The West appears to have responded with what looks like a genuine humanitarian intervention attempt. Yet, when looked at a bit more deeply, there are many murky — often contradictory — issues coming to the fore that complicate the picture.
(Side note about Qadhafi spelling: the UN Security Council resolution uses Qadhafi, while various reports using Qaddafi, Gaddafi, or some other variation. This article will try to be consistent but quotes may use variations.)
On this page:
- Brief background/context
- No-fly zone — weak, vague and contradictory UN Security Council Resolution?
- Operation Odyssey Dawn — bombing to enforce a no-fly zone
- Arab League tentatively support no-fly zone
- No end game or exit strategy?
- Opposition forces lacking organization
- Geopolitics; West’s Interests?
- Emerging geopolitics. New global powers?
- Media reporting, information management, propaganda
The current conflict comes as protesters demand an end to the current regime and democratic elections in Libya, a country ruled by Colonel Muammar Qadhafi for over 40 years when he lead a coup against King Idris and established the Libyan Arab Republic.
His rule has been oppressive, banning dissent and the formation of any other political parties, while also committing state-sponsored terrorism in the past. Oil revenues have accounted for a large portion of revenues, and his family is accused of amassing a large fortune (which is one of the reasons he supposedly overthrow the monarchy for).
Qadhafi had aligned himself with the Soviet Union in earlier years, and supported the idea of a Pan African movement for a
United States of Africa (though probably with some notion of self-interest in any Pan Africa as he saw himself at the helm or at least with enormous influence). While claiming to be anti-imperialist he has been comfortable with his own forms of control, brutality and subjugation of others.
His support of terrorism abroad also resulted in the US bombing of Libya in 1986. In 1993 the UN imposed sanctions on Libya. It is possible these may have had some effect (though he did sponsor terrorist acts after the 1986 bombing too, possibly in retaliation) as Qadhafi eventually established closer economic and security relations with the West. He also agreed to end his nuclear weapons program and so the sanctions were lifted in 2003.
He also cooperated with some investigations of previous acts of terrorism and paid some compensation. The release of the Lockerbie bomber and return to Libya was perhaps more recently controversial.
In response to the 2011 uprising that was initially quite peaceful, he has been quite defiant threatening many civilian lives if needed. The uprising has since turned into an armed rebellion and numerous diplomats and military personnel have defected over the increasingly violent reaction by the ruling regime.
The generally untrained and disorganized rebel forces have, however, been out-gunned so far (though as a current conflict as of writing, the situation is of course volatile and could change quickly).
Qaddafi’s brutal response escalated the situation. The opposition, centered in Benghazi, worried about possible massacres from the regime. The international community, it seemed, were slow to respond, but eventually UN Security Council resolutions threatened the regime with war crimes prosecution if the situation worsened and eventually also allowed for a no-fly zone to be established to protect civilians.
No-fly zone — weak, vague and contradictory UN Security Council Resolution?
Into March, Qaddafi threatened to destroy those who resisted and some of his forces started to close in on Benghazi (where the opposition had created a Transitional National Council in the second city).
The West found themselves in a precarious situation. If they delayed, they would have been criticized for not aiding the civilians, and if they acted they’d be criticized for yet more military actions.
As calls for help from the beleaguered opposition grew, they decided they had to act, even as repression in other countries (though admittedly not threatening such imminent destruction as was thought in Libya) in the region were going on unchallenged.
The UN Security Council followed up on an earlier Resolution 1970 — calling for restraint and reporting to the International Criminal Court for any human rights violations — with Resolution 1973 in mid-March to authorize a no-fly zone to protect civilians.
The Resolution confusingly allowed
all necessary measures,
to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack but explicitly
exclud[ed] a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.
All necessary measures caused confusion because Western powers insisted that the resolution was not to overthrow Qadhafi even though that is what many leaders were vocally calling for in the mainstream media and some initial bombing of Qadhafi’s compound seemed to imply (as Qadhafi was not threatening civilians in his compound). In addition, no ground troops excluded possible measures from
all necessary measures, as some have argued that ground troops might be a more effective barrier to the Qaddafi forces.
At the same time, the West’s appetite for anything military that is more than a no-fly zone has been tainted or restrained by fear of public backlash given how stretched they are in Afghanistan and Iraq and how terrible those experiences have been. (The opposition had also stated they did not want ground troops, just protection from aerial bombing, hoping that would be enough to see the regime crumble.)
There has also been talk of arming the opposition with better arms as what they have is no match to Qaddafi’s forces. Yet, the resolution prohibits arms into Libya.
The resolution may have been intentionally vague to try and get broad support for it. It may have been weak because of the rush. This may have combined to create the contradictory messages but it was enough for Western forces to kick start the bombing campaign.
Operation Odyssey Dawn — bombing to enforce a no-fly zone
The bombing campaign started very quickly after the Resolution authorized a no-fly zone and French jets started the first wave of attacks. The US was keen to be seen as just a part of an overall coalition, not the leader of it and so it joined later with a barrage of cruise missiles on various military targets.
Around the time the bombing commenced, Qadhafi seemed in a precarious position: the uprising seemed to be increasing, various high profile defections were occurring and he was sounding increasingly delusional in his defiant and bizarre speeches.
There were hopes this would be a short operation:
Maybe it was optimism or lack of full information but clearly the regime has carried on, perhaps even more resolute to act, now that it sees itself defying the West.
A useful infographic from Wikipedia shows what coalition forces have been involved in the no-fly zone enforcement/bombings:
The bombing campaign has also been met with criticism by initial supporters, perhaps surprisingly.
Arab League tentatively support no-fly zone
The West was extremely keen to get Arab League support for any action. It would give a sense of legitimacy for the West’s actions as it would help avoid any military response look like yet more Western imperialism or Western attack on yet another Islamic country.
The corrupt, authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies of almost all the rulers from the countries that make up the Arab League makes them illegitimate in the eyes of their own populations, undermining Western claim of legitimacy from the Arab people by gaining Arab League support.
Furthermore, a full Arab representation has been described as a
myth, as Asia Times Online noted:
In addition, when the bombing did commence, the Arab League voiced their concern at the bombing of various targets, as they believed it was not consistent with enforcing a no-fly zone. The league’s secretary general Amr Moussa said
What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone.… And what we want is the protection of civilians and not the shelling of more civilians. The Washington Post reporting this also added,
This goes back to the resolution’s vagueness with the
all necessary measures clause, while Western involvement implying no ground troops and a no-fly zone only was the assumption of the Arab League. In other words, the Resolution gave excuses for everyone to agree while still appealing to potentially opposing or hostile local opinions.
But, as US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates made clear before the resolution,
No end game or exit strategy?
Some fear the conflict could drag on for a while as the UN resolution is limited in its mandate, the opposition is not organized militarily and the implementation of that resolution by coalition forces does not appear to entertain any option for giving Qadhafi a way out to stop this (for now).
Instead, as noted earlier, Western powers insisted that the UN resolution did not authorize overthrowing Qadhafi even though that is what many leaders were vocally calling for in the mainstream media at the same time.
As US news anchorman, Chris Mathews fears Qaddafi will cling onto power if there is no way out, meaning more bloodshed:
Asli Bali, professor of International Law at the UCLA School of Law, also raises concerns that even the first UN Security Council resolution disincentivizes Qadhafi from stepping down quickly:
Were alternatives possible? Asli Bali added that the International Crisis Group had suggested the option of peacekeeping forces on the ground before the UN Resolution. The force would act as a buffer between Qadhafi and civilians. Diplomatic pressure in the meanwhile could have been increased to get Qadhafi to step down or reform etc.
Are such peace-keeping forces still an option? Both Qadhafi and Coalition forces have been quite vocal about being against any form of ground troops. But that has typically been in the context of the current campaign.
Whether people’s positions would have been different if the military option had not developed so quickly is hard to know. Even if peacekeeping troops had been agreed to, who would the peacekeeping troops be? African Union and Arab League mandated forces?
There has been some concern that African Union forces may not have the clout, or may be influenced by Qadhafi as he has often funded them in the past. The Arab League is hardly representative of good governance. Western forces would likely be unwelcome even as peacekeeping troops. Would Latin America or Asian countries step in?
Another option being considered is arming the opposition further and officials from coalition countries are (perhaps intentionally) sending mixed messages on this option. On first thought it seems contradictory to the UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 that both talked of an arms embargo on the whole of Libya (though clause 9(c) in 1970 talks of exemptions if approved by a Committee that would report to the Security Council). Resolution 1973 also talked of
all necessary measures to prevent civilian deaths. Both aspects can be used to justify support for, or reasons against, arming the opposition.
Before those resolutions, Qadhafi had told supporters gathered in Green Square that he would arm them if needed. Whether that has since happened is not known for sure, but the arms embargo that later came was clearly addressed at that and similar threats, including the use of mercenaries.
Will the West rush to arm (directly or through proxy nations) rebel forces to better withstand and take on Qadhafi without West’s (visible) involvement, just as Qadhafi rushes to arm loyalists? If so, is this going to degrade into a protruded civil war?
A number of mainstream media outlets also reported that Obama had reportedly signed a secret order to help opposition fighters with covert operations. Al Jazeera added to their report on this (previous link) the views of William Hague, the British foreign minister, who implied that the US’s action contradicted the UN arms embargo and that the restrictions
in our view, apply to the whole of Libya while the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, added:
I remind you it is not part of the UN resolution, which France sticks to, but we are ready to discuss it with our partners.
(These contradictions could turn out to be intentional. A not-so-secret, or intentionally leaked report about such secret orders and mixed messages from coalition partners who you would expect to be united on this behind the scenes could be used to confuse the Libyan regime (as well as other audiences), or keep it guessing. The
Fog of War clouds everything and truth is often the first casualty of war, as it is often said.)
John Norris, Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative, lamented at the dilemmas long before the UN resolution and offered some options:
explaining the course of action to the public is always problematic (spin, propaganda, etc), it has been many weeks since the above. Even after the UN resolution, a lot of options appear to have remained on the table, so to speak, although there are various mixed messages from different circles. Perhaps public mixed messages also serves to keep Qadhafi’s regime guessing. More and more defections may also help to undermine Qadhafi.
Another blunt reason the West needs to think about diplomatic options is, as former head of UK’s armed forces said, the UK is
spreading it’s forces very thin and a political resolution in Libya must be found quickly.
As the BBC noted, he also warned against
loose talks of arming the rebels which
smacks of mission creep and could jeopardize support from Arab states.
Opposition forces lacking organization
As numerous journalists have reported, although the opposition forces are very passionate about the rebellion, they are generally not professional soldiers (some military personnel have defected and are slowly trying to instill discipline).
As a result, they have tended to be ineffective at pushing back Qadhafi’s forces who are professional soldiers (some may be mercenaries too).
In some cases, even after coalition bombing may have helped push back regime forces, the rebels have not been able to capitalize and have lost that gained ground, sometimes even pushed further back.
The other concern raised by many journalists and commentators before the bombing began was how coalition forces would know from the air who is enemy and who are rebels and who are civilians.
The reason is that rebel forces use civilian vehicles such as cars and pick-up trucks, as do civilians. But crucially, even Qadhafi’s army uses these vehicles so from the air, targets may be hard to verify.
It requires good ground intelligence, and with the coalition unwilling to have ground troops, the risk of hitting civilians or rebellions has long been feared.
Indeed, on April 2, NATO forces did just that, killing at least 13 rebels it is thought.
This is the last thing the coalition forces would want because any problem like this quickly threatens to escalate into opposition to coalition presence.
A few days earlier, a NATO strike on an ammunition truck sent shrapnel into nearby houses killing some civilians, including children. (A doctor interviewed on television described it but the journalist also said that talking to rebels, they wanted more strikes to take out such vehicles even if it meant some civilian deaths; that had those Qadhafi trucks got further the massacre would have been worse.)
Geopolitics; West’s Interests?
Perhaps in the context of the Iraq debacle, the global financial crisis, the shifts in world and economic power and the wider Middle East unrest, the crisis in Libya reveals a number of geopolitical issues.
Selective intervention? What about various other places?
Many question why the West is intervening in Libya militarily while other countries such as Bahrain or Yemen or Ivory Coast (with perhaps as many if not more killed in violence) are not getting such attention?
And this is not just a recent issue, but a common complaint for whenever there have been conflicts in the name of humanitarian intervention as they all appear selective.
Stephen Zunes of Foreign Policy In Focus adds that based on number of civilian deaths, Libya has been similar to other places that have been dealt with quite differently:
There are also so many factors at play as Asli Bali, professor of International Law at the UCLA School of Law, alludes to:
Model partner and major non-NATO ally
Bahrain, close ally to Saudi Arabia, is also home to the US navy’s fifth fleet, so that may partly explain their silence there. Despite peaceful pro-democratic protests, the crackdown by the authorities has been brutal and they’ve even invited Saudi Arabian troops in to contain the protests further.
As The Guardian has noted,
In 2003, Bahrain was named by George Bush as a major non-NATO ally. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Manama in December, called Bahrain Clinton had added that
a model partner, not only for the US but other countries in the region.
America will continue working with [Bahrain] to promote a vigorous civil society and to ensure that democracy, human rights and civil liberties are protected by the rule of law.
Reuters recently reported that US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates said Syria, Libya and Iran were examples of
authoritarian regimes (that) have suppressed their people and have been willing to use violence against them. It is probably not surprising those 3 were mentioned as they are typically the anti-West ones; the pro-West regimes were not listed by him. Though Gates is not the only Western official to say something like this over the years.
A deal with Saudis to stay quiet about Bahrain to get UN Resolution support?
In addition, as Pepe Escobar reveals in the Asia Times, there may be a deal of convenience behind the scenes:
Escobar was describing what The Telegraph had reported:
Saudi officials say they gave their backing to Western air strikes on Libya in exchange for the United States muting its criticism of the authorities in Bahrain, a close ally of the desert kingdom.
Former British Ambassador, Craig Murray, was the source for the second diplomatic source Escobar referred to and is worth quoting further:
Other interests, such as oil and more?
Many feel it is just because of oil interests. It is easy to see how that is because the past geopolitics of the region has seen the West happily (or reluctantly) support brutal dictatorships in the region to secure various
national interests such as ensured access and control of energy and vital geostrategic locations.
Yet, if oil was the sole interest in Libya, would the West not have just happily continued to entertain Qadhafi, as they had been doing in recent years? That would have been cheaper for them. Although, it would have become less palatable for their own populations who are maybe becoming increasingly cynical of their own governments words.
One problem with the above is that Qadhafi is less pliable than most of the typical dictators and autocratic regimes the West has preferred, typically.
Noam Chomsky also notes the difference between both oil and non-oil based interests in the region and implies that imperial thinking may still be there behind the scenes:
In a separate Asia Times article, Escobar lists others who have vested interests in various ways, from the Pentagon, NATO, Saudi Arabia, the French, even private water companies.
Emerging geopolitics. New global powers?
An additional subplot to how this crisis plays out is how the seemingly declining US-centered world system is possibly going to give way to a new world of different powers.
As well as the global powershifts, there is the regional powerplay too, involving other actors, such as Turkey, as summarized by Jacques N. Couvas, writing for Inter Press Service:
But Turkey’s interest may not be easily assumed if France, Britain and Italy have their way
Being part of North Africa, the Libyan crisis has involved the African Union in various ways. Qadhafi has often championed the notion of a Pan-Africa and also paid a large portion of the African Union’s funds. Although some therefore fear the African Union may be unduly influenced by Qadhafi, it may still be a regional actor for a while.
It did, for example, manage to broker a meeting that included almost all the key players, as Inter Press Service reported:
The IPS article also notes that views throughout the continent are mixed, and
the military action should be a warning against African leaders clinging to power or involved in human rights violations. That could provide additional reasons why some African governments oppose military action.
In the case of Libya, it was interesting to note the UN Security Council abstentions included the BRIC block of nations — Brazil, Russia, India, and China, who all have their own interests in Libya but also in the global system as Ben Zala, head of the Sustainable Security Program at the Oxford Research Group, summarizes in Foreign Policy In Focus:
But now, the uprising across the Arab world plus global power play have come together:
Media reporting, information management, propaganda
Some mainstream media outlets have proudly presented the Coalition bombing as humanitarian, repeating their leaders’ statements without much question. Claims from Qadhafi’s regime, however, are rightly treated with question as Qadhafi is clearly a tyrant and has often made misleading or questionable claims. But this double-standard seems to be predictable as it repeats patterns from almost all past conflicts in recent decades as this site’s section on propaganda discusses further.
Admittedly, however, there have also been those who have questioned officialdom a bit more, perhaps given the memory of Iraq and the media debacle that was.
Before and since the UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, the contradictions have been numerous. Some events seem to feed into media reporting while other events result in conflicting messages which the media also struggle to handle.
War and conflict of course results in all sides attempting to manage the media and information flow for advantage and gain. Confusing and contradictory messages to the media can also be a tool to keep the watching opposition also guessing or distract them onto the wrong path.
Here are just a few examples of either questionable reporting, possible propaganda or other forms of media confusion, in no particular order:
- As soon as the UN no-fly zone was announced, Qadhafi’s regime announced a ceasefire. But they did not seem to announce a withdrawal, so it was not clear what they really promised there.
- On the other side, the ceasefire was broken almost as soon as it was announced. Reporters said they heard explosions in Benghazi but were unable to verify who caused them. It was assumed to be Qadhafi’s own forces as they approached Benghazi — it was hardly questioned if that was true, because Qadhafi’s unpredictability and defiance is assumed.
- Qadhafi’s defiance at times seemed delusional. He often made contradicting or changing claims, for example, blaming Al Qaeda, drugs, that he is not leader technically so technically he cannot step down (though his supporters certainly see him as a leader), and so on. Was this a sign of delusion and desperation or a deliberate ploy to sow seeds of doubt and send messages to various groups via the media?
- Both sides are offering ceasefires that may not seem reasonable to the other side, but is that then to just buy time, or stall, or showing the hand that options are limited?
- There’s little mainstream analysis of who the rebels are. It seems the interim council is now headed up by many defectors. How many of them benefited from being in Qadhafi’s regime in the past? Will they still be held accountable for those past actions? What of the original groups that started the peaceful anti-Qadhafi demonstrations? Are they now side-lined? At the same time, many in the opposition have raised the flag of King Idris who was overthrown by Qadhafi. Is this symbolic only or are there monarchist elements in the opposition (in otherwords replacing one autocracy with another)?
- Very shortly after the no-fly zone was announced, a fighter jet was seen flying over Benghazi and then shot-down. Reporters immediately, and understandably, assumed it was a Qadhafi plane shot down by the opposition. It turned out (later reported on Al Jazeera and elsewhere) that rebels admitted it was one of the few planes that they had and it was tragically shot down by their own people on the ground mistaking it for a regime plane. Yet, no-one was questioning why it was flying after a no-fly zone had been declared (as it applied to all, not just Qadhafi’s regime).
- At the time of some key defections from Qadhafi’s regime, the oppositions offered a ceasefire that was rejected. It may have been that the nature of the ceasefire would never have been accepted by the other side (Qadhafi’s regime has offered some ceasefires that equally look unlikely to be accepted by the other side), but could it have been used to encourage other defectors, to sow seeds of doubt, so to speak?
- As noted earlier, a number of mainstream media outlets also reported that Obama had reportedly signed a secret order to help opposition fighters with covert operations. Some coalition partners were also reported to say that they did not think such operations were mandated by the UN Security Council Resolutions. Why would such orders then be considered? It would be naïve to think that countries would not be thinking about these things. But the more interesting aspect is the not-so-secret aspect of it. Was it intentionally leaked to confuse the Libyan regime (as well as other audiences) and keep it guessing?
fog of war clouds most things in any conflict and truth is often the first casualty of war as is often noted. Like others before and surely those that will follow, the messages will often appear contradictory in the media and political circles. That may sometimes be intentional to keep the other side guessing. In other words, anything that is said or not said may or may not be true.
It can be argued — as the West will be keen to do — that this has been a humanitarian intervention that has potentially saved many lives. On the other hand it can equally be argued that military intervention was rushed and the manner in which it was done could have made the situation worse (e.g. by pushing Qadhafi and his supporters into a corner and making them more defiant, while seemingly closing off options for an exit strategy for Qadhafi).
The UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the no-fly zone seems vague and contradictory in places, perhaps intentionally so. There may be wider geopolitical reasons for
humanitarian intervention in Libya as other places that would qualify for such interventions have either been ignored (by comparison), or been addressed using high pressured diplomacy, or, as in the case of Bahrain, Yemen and some other Middle East countries, been met with comparative silence, almost implying tacit support for crushing democracy not upholding it.
These mixed messages make the future for Libya uncertain. Civil war is how some commentators have already started to describe the conflict, which would imply a long drawn out conflict, not a quick fix that the West hoped for.
- Middle East: A 1300 Year Struggle for Control of Resources
- Middle East and North Africa Unrest
- Control of Resources; Supporting Dictators, Rise of Terrorism
- Energy Security
- Crisis in Libya
- Syria Unrest
- Iraq—2003 onwards; War, Aftermath and Post-Saddam
- US/UK Buildup for War on Iraq
- Iraq—Post 1991 Persian Gulf War/Sanctions
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