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LIBYA: No ‘Mission Accomplished’ Claimed in Washington Yet

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Aug 22 2011 (IPS) - While the apparent end of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year reign over Libya was greeted with considerable satisfaction here Monday, no one was prepared to declare “mission accomplished”, particularly given the looming questions around what happens next.

U.S. President Barack Obama himself stressed those uncertainties in a statement released by the White House Monday afternoon that described the situation on the ground in Tripoli as “still very fluid.”

“I want to emphasise that this is not over yet,” Obama said, in the statement issued from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he and his family are vacationing. “As the regime collapses, there is still fierce fighting in some areas, and we have reports of regime elements threatening to continue fighting.”

“Although it’s clear that Qaddafi’s rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce further bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of Libya and calling for those forces that continue to fight to lay down their arms for the sake of Libya,” the statement noted, adding that opposition forces that swept into the Libyan capital with surprising speed Sunday should avoid “reprisals and violence.”

Obama also called for next month’s U.N. General Assembly, as well as Washington’s NATO allies in Europe and Arab states that aided the opposition Transitional National Council (TNC), to provide critical support for what he called “an inclusive transition that leads to a democratic Libya.”

Obama’s statement followed the unexpectedly swift takeover by rebel forces of most of Tripoli and their capture of his most powerful son, Seif al-Islam, who was widely regarded as Gaddafi’s heir apparent, as well as two of his brothers.


Gaddafi’s whereabouts, however, were unknown, and intense fighting around the Bab al-Aziziya compound which has served as his regime’s military headquarters reportedly continued Monday. In addition, Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, and several other towns considered regime strongholds remained outside the rebel’s control.

The sudden and sweeping rebel advances from both east and west over the past week were reportedly facilitated by increased surveillance by U.S. drone aircraft and intensified NATO air support against the regime’s defensive positions, according to a variety of reports here that also credited the enhanced involvement of special forces units from Britain, France, and Qatar, as well as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – on the ground and in identifying targets and coordinating attacks.

While the original justification for NATO’s intervention against the regime, as authorised last March by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, was to protect the civilian population, it became increasingly clear over the course of the five-month conflict, and particularly in the last few weeks as the rebels retook the offensive, that the goal was regime change.

As that goal appeared in hand, however, the emphasis here Monday was more on the challenges that both the rebel TNC and its foreign backers now face, as well as on the implications of the regime’s ouster – and the way it was accomplished – for the broader region.

“There still could be considerable bloodshed before this thing is over,” warned Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who also served as a senior adviser to former President George W. Bush.

In addition to concerns about possible “stay-behind operations” by Gaddafi loyalists – of the kind that effectively sabotaged U.S. pacification efforts after the 2003 invasion of Iraq – he said he was worried about the unity and composition of the TNC and the fighters nominally under its control.

“I’m very worried about a Libya that could be divided along tribal lines (or) along geographical lines,” Danin said at a press teleconference in which he also suggested the country could become a “failed state”. Until now, he added, “They’ve been united (only) in what they opposed.”

“Not only is it not clear how much loyalty (the TNC) commands among the fighters, but Libya has effectively no institutions,” noted Blake Hounshell, a Middle East specialist and managing editor of ‘foreignpolicy.com’.

“It was a state run for the benefit of the Qaddafi family and its shrinking circle of friends and allies,” he wrote on the publication’s website. “…There will likely be intense disagreements over how to distribute Libya’s oil wealth, how to account for the last 42 years of despotic rule, how to incorporate Islam into the state, and how to disarm and integrate the disparate fighting brigades that overthrew Qaddafi. Hopefully, any conflicts that arise will be resolved peacefully.”

Of particular concern is the presence of Islamists, some of them with alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

“Chances are good that Islamist forces are hiding behind more benign elements, waiting for the right moment to pounce, as roughly happened in Iran in 1978-79,” wrote Daniel Pipes, the head of the neo- conservative Middle East Forum, on the right-wing ‘nationalreview.com’ blog Monday that echoed worries expressed by Bush’s former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, among others. “…I fear that Western forces will have brought civilization’s worst enemies to power,” Pipes added.

These uncertainties, as well as the lack of genuine national institutions, have led some analysts to call for the U.N., NATO, or other multilateral bodies to form an international force to help oversee the transition and keep the peace.

Writing in the ‘Financial Times’ Monday, CFR President Richard Haass argued for the necessity at this juncture of “boots on the ground” as quickly as possible.

“Now NATO has to deal with its own success,” he wrote. “Some sort of international assistance, and most likely an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to restore and maintain order,” Haass said, warning that failure to deploy such a force could result in a “post-Saddam Iraq in the first instance, or the chaos (and terrorism) of Somalia and Yemen down the road.”

“…U.S. President Barack Obama may need to reconsider his assertion that there would not be any American boots on the ground,” Haass, a senior Middle East policy-maker under both George H.W. and George W. Bush, said.

But his colleague Danin predicted that the deployment of U.S. troops and peace-keepers or enforcers was highly unlikely – particularly given the proximity of the 2012 election and the public’s war fatigue.

Given Europe’s interest both in Libya’s energy resources and in preventing large-scale immigration from Africa, Danin suggested that the European Union (EU) should play a major role, along with Gulf Arab states that supported the TNC and NATO campaign.

Daniel Serwer, a conflict specialist at Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies, and author of a recent CFR study on a post-Gaddafi Libya, agreed that the EU should lead a stabilisation effort, preferably under a U.N. umbrella with support from the Arab League and African Union.

“I see a real need for the Europeans and the Arab League to step up as soon as possible,” he said Monday. “They have more to gain from this coming out right,” Serwer added, noting, however, that given Europe’s pre-occupation with its financial situation, “the political reluctance of the Europeans to put boots on the ground is just as palpable as the American reluctance.”

As to the wider regional implications, most Middle East specialists here predicted that the events in Libya would encourage ongoing movements for change, particularly in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.

“The impact of Qaddafi’s fall is resonating powerfully across the region in all the right ways,” Marc Lynch, an Arab media expert at George Washington University, wrote on his ‘foreignpolicy.com’ blog Monday. “Arab activists across the region will now likely try to jump-start protest movements which had lost momentum,” he predicted.

He added that the outcome in Libya also “vindicates President Obama’s approach” to the crisis, noting that “he didn’t panic as events unfolded, even as virtually the entire policy community decided that the (NATO) campaign had turned into a quagmire, stalemate, or fiasco” and he “correctly resisted demands for a more aggressive action…”

That assessment was challenged by Republican and neo-conservative analysts who complained that an earlier and more-aggressive U.S. intervention would have saved more lives and inflicted less damage on NATO’s unity and image as an irresistible military force.

“Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Gaddafi,” said Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham in a statement issued Sunday night, “but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”

 
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