Libya: Support for war fraying

August 13, 2011
Anti-Gaddafi fighter in Libya.

Botswana has become the latest country to follow the Western powers in recognising the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC), set up by rebel forces opposed to Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship, as the legitimate government of Libya, Mmegi said on August 12.

Meanwhile, the August 12 British Telegraph reported that Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli was threatened by splits.

However, the Telegraph’s report, echoed by other media, was largely based on clarifications by regime spokespeople of provocative remarks by Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, that appear to have been aimed at exploiting divisions within the TNC.

Evidence of these divisions includes the July 28 assassination of TNC military commander General Abdul Fattah Younes, fighting between rival rebel militias and an armed prison break.

The military division of Libya between forces of the Gaddafi regime in the west and the TNC in the east has remained largely static since NATO air strikes in support of the TNC began after being authorised by a March 17 United Nations Security Council resolution.

In March, NATO politicians confidently predicted that their intervention would quickly lead to Gaddafi’s downfall.

However, an August 12 Reuters report said: “About 70% of Libyans in Muammar Gaddafi’s main stronghold Tripoli still support him and he is in no danger of falling anytime soon, a captured Libyan intelligence officer said on Friday.”

The figure may be exaggerated, but support for the regime is clearly higher in the areas it controls than it was in February, when thousands took to the streets to oppose the regime.

NATO has shown, once more, that dropping bombs is not a particularly effective way of winning their hearts and minds.

The March 17 UN Security Council resolution authorised air strikes not to overthrow Gaddafi but to “protect civilian lives”.

The truth in Libya's war is shrouded in claims and counter-claims by the competing forces. But sustained air strikes have never been a great way to protect civilians.

On July 13, Libyan prosecutor general Mohamed Zekri Mahjubi tallied NATO air strikes since March as “killing 1,108 civilians and wounding 4,537 others in the bombardment of Tripoli and other cities and villages”.

Referring to a mother and two children, aged five and three, killed by a NATO attack on Zliten on August 3, lawyer and neighbour Ali Adil told the August 4 Telegraph: “These people were not fighters, there is no military in this neighbourhood. NATO say they are protecting civilians but they are turning their weapons on us.

“The UN Security Council should investigate this.”

On August 9, NATO bombed the village of Majer, 10 kilometres south of Zliten.

Libyan officials said 85 civilians were killed — 33 children, 32 women and 20 men, from 12 families, AFP said on August 10.

An August 11 statement from the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict in Libya”.

Some of the anger at NATO’s bombing is directed at the TNC. “Those that are fighting with NATO are traitors against their country. We should volunteer to go to the front line and finish it. We will never forgive,” Mohammad Ali Berber, a cousin of Ibitsam, the killed woman, told the Telegraph.

In the TNC-controlled areas, the popularity of US and French flags continues to be a never-ending source of delight for Western journalists.

But the five month war of attrition in alliance with NATO has transformed the Libyan rebellion from a broad-based mass uprising to a military campaign by an alternative government that is increasingly fractured and dependent on foreign support.

The speculation about divisions in Gaddafi’s regime stemmed from comments by Saif al-Islam to the August 3 New York Times in which he suggested that if the West wanted the regime to compromise with the TNC it would do so with its Islamist wing.

“Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran. So what?” he said. “You want us to make a compromise. OK. You want us to share the pot. OK, but with who? [The Islamists] are the real force on the ground.”
His remarks were in reference to the assassination of Younes. Initially the TNC blamed agents of Gaddafi.

However, the August 1 Telegraph reported: “An opposition minister admitted that Gen Younes was killed by rogue elements of an Islamist militia allied to the rebels, although other officials have since tried to transfer the blame to the Katiba Yussef Shakir group.”

Younes was Gaddafi’s interior minister before his defection in February put Benghazi in the hands of the rebels. There has been speculation that Islamists assassinated him in revenge for the many Islamists whose deaths he caused while serving Gaddafi.

Other speculation has involved a division between Islamists and “liberals” and it was this that caused Saif al-Islam’s amusement.

The Katiba Yussef Shakir group, also known as the al-Nidaa Brigade, is a unit of the rebel’s military who staged jailbreaks following the assassination that freed 300 prisoners from the TNC’s jails.

The TNC has since launched a crackdown on the group, the August 1 London Times said.

A June 29 report said that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had failed to “find evidence of rape, use of mercenaries, use of heavy weapons against civilians, and mass killing on the scale of Yemen and Syria” — the justification of the March 17 resolution and NATO air strikes.

Migrant workers have suffered human rights abuses by both sides, according to an International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) report published on on July 30. They make up a majority of those fleeing Libya since the conflict began.

“More than 1.1 million people have fled Libya since late February, mostly over land borders with Tunisia and Egypt,” the report said. “Of those only about 19,000 exiles have tried to escape by sea, arriving in Lampedusa and Malta between 26 March and 14 June 2011, representing 1.7% of the exodus from Libya.

“Fantasies of ‘invasion’ voiced in Europe have therefore no basis in reality, but have nonetheless been used to justify extraordinary surveillance measures at sea aiming to prevent the arrival of migrants and refugees into European territory.

“The multiplication of these barriers has had dramatic consequences — as of 14 June the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 2,000 people have drowned while fleeing Libya.”

Prior to the February uprising, Gaddafi had traded migrant workers' rights for better relations with the European Union, cracking down on Africans using Libya to transit to Europe.

The FIDH said: “This policy, under which the EU made Gaddafi a partner in fighting irregular migration into Europe and ignored the grave human rights violations committed against migrants in Libya, formed part of the EU’s general policy of externalising border controls.”

NATO does not appear to have a strategy for Libya beyond waiting for Gaddafi to be worn down in a war of attrition. The international consensus supporting the air strikes is fraying.

The August 12 Hindu said: “Earlier this week, Russia, India, Brazil and other UN Security Council delegations had expressed concerns about NATO strikes on Libyan state television last month and other attacks that have allegedly killed civilians.”

In his statement, Ban Ki Moon called on for all sides in the Libya conflict to stop fighting and negotiate a political solution.

The statement said a “ceasefire that is linked to a political process ... is the only viable means to achieving peace and security in Libya”.

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