Questions over Libya's future after fall of dictator

People celebrate the fall of Gaddafi in Tripoli.

Another Arab dictator is gone.

But the nature of the fall of Muammar Gaddafi raises questions about the nature of the new regime that will emerge, and to what extent it will truly reflect the interests of Libya's people.

On August 21, forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) entered Tripoli and claimed victory against the forces that remained loyal to Gaddafi.

A week later, loyalist forces continued to hold out in the dictator's home town, Sirte, and in pockets around Tripoli. But Gaddafi's 42-year reign is over.

NTC and NATO spokespeople were initially upbeat. The NTC claimed that while Gaddafi was still at large, they had captured three of his sons, including high profile regime spokesperson, Saif al-Islam.

This was “confirmed” by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

However, that evening Saif al-Islam Gaddafi visited the Rixos Hotel, then still under loyalist control.

“I am here to refute the lies,” Saif al-Islam announced to the astonished journalists. “We broke the back of the rebels. It was a trap. We gave them a hard time, so we are winning.”

If nothing else, this incident demonstrates the statements of no side in the conflict can be taken at face value.

Much of what is happening in Libya are extremely difficult to determine from outside the country, but it is clear that much of what is being claimed is untrue.

One such claim is that the overthrow of Gaddafi was the accomplishment of an internal people’s movement, like the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

There was such a people’s movement in Libya, erupting in February and March in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

However, it is unclear to what extent the NTC’s calls for Western assistance were representative of this movement.

These calls led to the UN Security Council’s March 17 “No Fly Zone” resolution that was the pretext for NATO's attacks.

From the outset, recent defectors from the regime were the most in favour of Western intervention.

Initially these were mainly diplomats, and their voices were unsurprisingly well represented in the international media.

The defections of senior military and political figures gave the opposition some military forces and weapons.

This, and Gaddafi’s use of military force against protesters, meant the character of the uprising began to change from a mass protest movement to a civil war.

In Tripoli, regime security forces silenced the protests. The defection of General Abdul Fattah Younes put the second biggest city, Benghazi, in the hands of the opposition.

Islamist groups already waging a low-intensity insurgency in the south and east of the country joined the opposition.

Placards opposing outside intervention continued to be visible at protests. But by March 17, the superior firepower of Gaddafi’s heavy artillery had made the fall of Benghazi seem imminent.

The abundance of French and US flags at rallies suggests the call for air strikes was popular in that city.

France, Britain and Italy led the international campaign for intervention. They worked closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) a grouping of Saudi Arabia and the smaller oil monarchies in the gulf.

They began promoting the NTC, which regime defectors, dissidents and insurgent commanders had set up, as an alternative to Gaddafi’s regime.

The GCC sent token forces — Qatari warplanes — to join the NATO strikes against Libya, ostensibly in support of democracy there. At the same time GCC forces, predominantly Saudi, invaded Bahrain to help its monarchy to brutally crush democracy protests.

Libyan ambivalence about foreign intervention was one reason why the NATO mission was officially restricted to air, missile and drone attacks, with no ground forces. However, some NATO special forces were probably covertly fighting with the rebels even before the air strikes were authorised.

Another reason was to get the diplomatic consent of Russia and China at the UN Security Council.

Also, the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have left the West militarily overstretched and the financial cost — the US has spent US$4 trillion on occupying Iraq and Afghanistan — is a significant contributor to the West’s economic woes.

Such financial and domestic political considerations help explain why the US played a secondary role to the European NATO powers in the Libya intervention.

NATO succeeded in negating Gaddafi’s superiority in fire-power, taking pressure off Benghazi and allowed the rebels to counter-attack.

Various towns on the road between Tripoli and Benghazi changed hands from time to time, but the conflict essentially became a war of attrition.

NATO’s hope was that, as Gaddafi was unable to crush the rebels, and economically, diplomatically and militarily isolated, his regime would implode and Gaddafi would be overthrown by his henchmen who would then negotiate peace with the NTC.

Western diplomats, in rejecting a number of peace plans from the African Union and Latin American countries, made clear that there was no place for Gaddafi in a future Libyan government (despite the UN resolution being framed as protecting civilians, not regime change).

This was later reinforced by charges being brought in the International Criminal Court.

However, what remained of the Gaddafi regime did not collapse as hoped. Defections to the NTC largely ceased.

Furthermore, the very real foreign aggression, and the NTC’s apparent collusion, helped subdue opposition to Gaddafi in Tripoli.

NATO's attempts to use air strikes to assassinate Gaddafi only succeeded in killing some non-politically involved family members, along with other civilians.

After five months, Western leaders were under pressure from domestic politicians concerned about the costs of another open-ended military engagement and from the leaders of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Pepe Escobar wrote in the August 24 Asia Times Online: “NATO started winning the war by launching Operation Siren at Iftar — the break of the Ramadan fast — [on August 20]. ‘Siren’ was the codename for an invasion of Tripoli.

“That was NATO’s final — and desperate — power play, after the chaotic ‘rebels’ had gone nowhere after five months of fighting Gaddafi’s forces.”

The August 25 Guardian said: “Rebel leaders had been hoping that the people of Tripoli would rise up against Muammar Gaddafi, but after a bloody crackdown crushed local opposition they began planning their own revolt.

“British military and civilian advisers, including special forces troops, along with those from France, Italy and Qatar, have spent months with rebel fighters, giving them key, up-to-date intelligence.”

Once the assault on Tripoli began, the Guardian said: “An increasing number of American hunter-killer drones provided round-the-clock surveillance.

“Covert special forces teams from Qatar, France, Britain and some east European states provided critical assistance, such as logisticians, forward air controllers for the rebel army, as well as damage-assessment analysts and other experts …

“Foreign military advisers on the ground provided real-time intelligence to the rebels.”

NATO air strikes were coordinated with the NTC’s assault.

The pretext for NATO's intervention was that it was necessary to save civilian lives.

How many people Gaddafi may have killed in an assault on Benghazi if NATO hadn’t intervened cannot be known.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has shown he share’s Gaddafi’s willingness to use military force, including heavy artillery, to crush protests.

There is no reason to believe that when Assad’s forces brutally retook cities such as Hama they showed any more restraint than Gaddafi would have had he retaken Benghazi.

AP reported on August 17 that in Syria, “various human rights groups … say more than 1,800 civilians have been killed since the uprising erupted in mid-March.”

On June 9, Reuters reported that the UN Human Rights Council was estimating the death toll in Libya at 15,000.

NATO's intervention failed to stop civilian casualties — these continued, at the hands of both Gaddafi's forces and NATO itself.

Despite the collapse of Gaddafi's regime, casualties are still mounting as street fighting and NATO air strikes continue.

A Scottish nurse working in a Tripoli hospital told the BBC on August 26 that her hospital was having difficulty coping with what were the highest casualties since the conflict began.

War crimes are reported to have been committed by both sides. On August 26, the BBC said that at least 17 prisoners were executed by loyalist forces abandoning Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya fortified headquarters.

“Meanwhile, the bodies of at least a dozen pro-Gaddafi fighters — two of whom had their hands tied behind their backs — were found on a roundabout in the centre of Tripoli,” the BBC said.

The West attacked Libya because the appeals of the defecting generals for air strikes gave the West an opportunity to reassert its role in the region in the face of the Arab Spring uprisings.

This was a gamble and the results are not yet clear.

The West is pushing NTC head Mustafa Abd al-Jalil, who was Gaddafi’s Minister of Justice until February 26, as the new Libyan leader.

A “Friends of Libya” meeting on September 1 in Paris, organised by the leaders of France and Britain, will seek to map out Libya's future.

It will involve 30 countries, with the stated aim of the NTC “guiding” its decisions.

How it will be received inside Libya, including by rank-and-file rebels who risked everything in their fight, is unknown.

The five months during which Gaddafi’s artillery pounded the rebel-held parts of the country and NATO air strikes pounded the government-held areas has created deep divisions.

Looting after the fall of Tripoli added to the easy availability of military grade weapons.

There are divisions within the NTC, as the July 28 assassination of General Younes and subsequent fighting between rival rebel militias showed.

Libyans need peace. To this end, NATO should cease air strikes immediately and Western military intervention must end.
However, the August 25 Guardian said: “The western advisers are expected to remain in Libya, advising on how to maintain law and order on the streets, and on civil administration, following Gaddafi's downfall …

“The role of Nato is likely to continue to be significant.”