Whither the Libyan quest for freedom? — I

The Arab League voted as it did because of the personal revulsion towards Qaddafi.


Najmuddin A Shaikh March 16, 2011

On March 11, the Arab League called upon the UN Security Council to impose a no-flying zone over Libya. There are mixed reports on whether or not the League, having earlier suspended the membership of Qaddafi’s government, had also recognised the Benghazi-located Libyan National Council as the legitimate representative of Libya, but all reports seem to agree that they did decide to establish contact with this group.

Many observers viewed this resolution as quite remarkable, given that many of the participating foreign ministers had to be mindful of the demands for greater political freedom and the ouster of dictatorial regimes that they had to contend with in their own countries. Partly, of course, the Arab League voted as it did because of the personal revulsion towards Qaddafi. And partly it was because they did not want to be seen as standing aside while fellow Arabs were killed by a megalomaniac. Largely, however, the decision reflected the urgent need to differentiate themselves from Qaddafi and to press the view that they would be seeking talks and compromises as the way to defuse the crises in their own countries.

On the ground, the situation is growing more desperate by the day for the ‘rebels’. Ras Lanuf and Zawiya are now firmly under Qaddafi’s control. The last rebel base in Western Libya, Misrata, is under siege and may fall shortly. The destruction in the cities Qaddafi has taken has been enormous. Zawiya, the last city to fall, reportedly bore the signs not only of the destruction of buildings and other physical infrastructure but also of mass graves into which the victims of the assault had been pushed.

One can no longer dismiss as an idle boast Qaddafi’s son Saif’s message to his “brothers” in the East that “we are coming”. This, of course means Benghazi, a city of 700,000 and the pioneer in the revolt against Qaddafi, and the seat of the Libyan National Council. This is the city that had defied Qaddafi in the past and suffered at his hands. They will resist if only because they have no hope of mercy. The massacre here would be awful, perhaps even more appalling than the slaughter in Srebrenica, which finally caused the world to act against the Serbian butchers.

At this stage, their only hope lies in foreign intervention, perhaps an intervention more forceful than has been called for by the Arab League and which the Libyan National Council may believe will be forthcoming after President Sarkozy announced France’s recognition of the Council as the legitimate government of Libya and the encouraging noises made by Nato which is now conducting round the clock surveillance flights over Libya — albeit without having been able to agree on doing anything more.

And that is the rub. The only country which has the where withal to impose a no-fly zone and to take other military action is the United States. There is considerable support for such action in Congress, which was said by General Clapper, the director of National Intelligence — much to the annoyance of the White House — that in the longer term, the Qaddafi regime would prevail because it had been able to replenish its weapon supplies. Senator McCain reflected the views of Congress when he said that a Qaddafi victory “would signal to rulers across the region that the best way to maintain power in the face of peaceful demands for justice is through swift and merciless violence.”

US President Obama has been categorical in demanding that Qaddafi should be removed from power. His administration claims rightly that they have swiftly imposed sanctions and frozen assets. But in terms of assisting the rebels, he has not gone beyond announcing that a government aid team would go to rebel held Libya and that Secretary of State Clinton would meet with rebel representatives in Cairo this week. Why so? Clinton explains that she was opposed to the United States acting without international authorisation since the “consequences are unforeseeable”. This caution comes not only from the difficulties inherent in imposing a no-fly zone, which would entail to start with the taking out of Libya’s air defence capabilities, but also from the apprehension that it would attract the same opprobrium that followed US unilateral action in Iraq. The Arab League resolution eases this problem somewhat

On March 11, the Arab League called upon the UN Security Council to impose a no-flying zone over Libya. There are mixed reports on whether or not the League, having earlier suspended the membership of Qaddafi’s government, had also recognised the Benghazi-located Libyan National Council as the legitimate representative of Libya, but all reports seem to agree that they did decide to establish contact with this group.

Many observers viewed this resolution as quite remarkable, given that many of the participating foreign ministers had to be mindful of the demands for greater political freedom and the ouster of dictatorial regimes that they had to contend with in their own countries. Partly, of course, the Arab League voted as it did because of the personal revulsion towards Qaddafi. And partly it was because they did not want to be seen as standing aside while fellow Arabs were killed by a megalomaniac. Largely, however, the decision reflected the urgent need to differentiate themselves from Qaddafi and to press the view that they would be seeking talks and compromises as the way to defuse the crises in their own countries.

On the ground, the situation is growing more desperate by the day for the ‘rebels’. Ras Lanuf and Zawiya are now firmly under Qaddafi’s control. The last rebel base in Western Libya, Misrata, is under siege and may fall shortly. The destruction in the cities Qaddafi has taken has been enormous. Zawiya, the last city to fall, reportedly bore the signs not only of the destruction of buildings and other physical infrastructure but also of mass graves into which the victims of the assault had been pushed.

One can no longer dismiss as an idle boast Qaddafi’s son Saif’s message to his “brothers” in the East that “we are coming”. This, of course means Benghazi, a city of 700,000 and the pioneer in the revolt against Qaddafi, and the seat of the Libyan National Council. This is the city that had defied Qaddafi in the past and suffered at his hands. They will resist if only because they have no hope of mercy. The massacre here would be awful, perhaps even more appalling than the slaughter in Srebrenica, which finally caused the world to act against the Serbian butchers.

At this stage, their only hope lies in foreign intervention, perhaps an intervention more forceful than has been called for by the Arab League and which the Libyan National Council may believe will be forthcoming after President Sarkozy announced France’s recognition of the Council as the legitimate government of Libya and the encouraging noises made by Nato which is now conducting round the clock surveillance flights over Libya — albeit without having been able to agree on doing anything more.

And that is the rub. The only country which has the where withal to impose a no-fly zone and to take other military action is the United States. There is considerable support for such action in Congress, which was said by General Clapper, the director of National Intelligence — much to the annoyance of the White House — that in the longer term, the Qaddafi regime would prevail because it had been able to replenish its weapon supplies. Senator McCain reflected the views of Congress when he said that a Qaddafi victory “would signal to rulers across the region that the best way to maintain power in the face of peaceful demands for justice is through swift and merciless violence.”

US President Obama has been categorical in demanding that Qaddafi should be removed from power. His administration claims rightly that they have swiftly imposed sanctions and frozen assets. But in terms of assisting the rebels, he has not gone beyond announcing that a government aid team would go to rebel held Libya and that Secretary of State Clinton would meet with rebel representatives in Cairo this week. Why so? Clinton explains that she was opposed to the United States acting without international authorisation since the “consequences are unforeseeable”. This caution comes not only from the difficulties inherent in imposing a no-fly zone, which would entail to start with the taking out of Libya’s air defence capabilities, but also from the apprehension that it would attract the same opprobrium that followed US unilateral action in Iraq. The Arab League resolution eases this problem somewhat but in the UN Security Council, to which the Arab League has appealed, Russia and China are opposed, at least for now, to any such intervention in a sovereign country.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 17th, 2011.

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