reflections

Aug 2, 2011 | 08:41 GMT

7 mins read

Libya: The Perils of Humanitarian War

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Four days after the announcement of the mysterious death of Libyan rebel military leader Abdel Fattah Younis, several stories have emerged seeking to explain how he and two of his aides were killed. Of these numerous tales, two narratives persist. One holds that he was killed by elements of a fifth column loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi; the other maintains that Younis was executed by an eastern militia acting outside the control of the National Transitional Council (NTC). What exactly transpired may never be known, but the effect of Younis' killing on how the National Transitional Council is perceived is the same regardless. The rebels that the West has been counting on to replace the Gadhafi regime apparently cannot even control their base territory in eastern Libya, let alone govern the entire country. The decision to frame the National Transitional Council as an optimal replacement to the Gadhafi regime was made in haste, when policymakers had very little information on the identity of the rebel forces. It is known that Younis was recalled from the front line near the eastern coastal town of Marsa el Brega sometime in the middle of last week. It is also known that on July 28, NTC leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil officially announced that Younis had been killed. Since then, Abdel-Jalil has changed the details of the official story. First he claimed that Younis was killed by an “armed gang” while en route to Benghazi to be questioned regarding “military matters.” Abdel-Jalil then stated July 30 that Younis had actually been ambushed after he met with NTC officials in Benghazi. Abdel-Jalil, who like Younis is a former minister in Gadhafi’s government, has said he does not know the exact reasons Younis was recalled in the first place. However, it has been widely speculated that Younis, the former interior minister who defected in the early days of the rebellion, was suspected of playing a double game and was in contact with the Tripoli regime. Three days after Younis’ death was announced, an NTC official stated that rebel forces in Benghazi had engaged in a five-hour firefight with members of a fifth column which had heretofore been feigning loyalty to the National Transitional Council. Though NTC official Mahmoud Shammam said the event had nothing to do with Younis’ death, it lends credence to the fifth column theory. However, allegations by several other NTC officials create another possibility. If Younis really was killed by one of two armed militias known to work autonomously of the rebel council, then the notion that the National Transitional Council is the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people — or even just the eastern Libyan people — immediately comes into question. To make matters worse, evidence that these militias are composed of Islamists (namely, former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) who had reason to seek revenge on Younis for his actions as interior minister, generates an entirely new set of worries for those that had placed so much faith in the rebels. The decision to frame the National Transitional Council as an optimal replacement to the Gadhafi regime was made in haste, when policymakers had very little information on the identity of the rebel forces. Not everyone rushed to formally recognize the body — France was the notable exception — but a de facto recognition effectively occurred the moment NATO began bombing the country in the unspoken name of regime change. There were early expressions of doubt about the nature of the opposition — especially the “flickers of intelligence" statement by NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, who said in March that elements of al Qaeda and Hezbollah were perhaps present among the rebel ranks . Nevertheless, the countries that pushed for the air campaign felt that anything was better than Gadhafi. This, after all, was a war ostensibly motivated by a desire to protect civilians. It was a humanitarian war that eventually assumed an overt policy designed to force the Libyan leader from power. NATO planes have now bombed Libya for more than four months, and Gadhafi remains in power despite all the claims that he is on the verge of defeat. It is always possible that his regime may collapse, but the confidence among those that have led the air campaign is waning, regardless of what their public statements may claim. Countries that really think a military victory is at hand do not openly talk about seeking a negotiated settlement with the enemy, nor do they budge on their demand that the target be required to exit the country as part of any agreement. France, the United States and the United Kingdom have all done so. With London's recognition July 27 of the National Transitional Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, there are few Western countries left that have not yet recognized the rebel council. The Czechs represent a rare case of open skepticism. While Prague has appointed a “flying ambassador” to Benghazi, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarenzberg said July 29, “I may find them nice, but I will not officially recognize [the rebels] until they get control of the whole country." This sentiment may end up being the historical lesson of the Libyan war, which ranks high on the list of countries in the region where the Arab Spring has failed to bring about a true revolution. It would be untrue to say that no changes have occurred in the Middle East and North Africa since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. The Yemeni president is lucky to be alive and living in Saudi Arabia, and he may not return to Yemen at all. Egypt may still be run by the military, but Mubarak is gone thanks in part to the actions of the protesters, (although, they have since lost momentum). The Khalifas in Bahrain weathered the storm quite well, but the unrest in the Persian Gulf island kingdom (and the manner in which the United States responded) has led indirectly to a potential rapprochement between age old rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Alawites in Syria have maintained power but could very well have laid the foundation for their demise in the long term. Libya, though, is the only country in which there was an armed intervention by the West. There were many reasons Libya was the one place in which the protection of civilians was officially deemed worthy of such a measure. Three outposts of rebel control have been created in Cyrenaica, Misurata and the Nafusa Mountains, and one wonders what the West will do next. The idea that rebel fighters could take Tripoli on their own was dismissed as unrealistic long ago. The strategy of bombing, waiting for the regime to implode and pushing for a negotiated settlement (just in case) has been adopted in its stead. But Younis’ death has created a whole new set of questions, the most fundamental of which is this: who exactly will govern Libya if Gadhafi is forced to step down?

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