Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The West can’t afford to lose in Libya

The Daily Star
Wednesday, August 10 2011
By Michael Glackin

“Of course, you mustn’t call them rebels anymore,” a minor but informed cog in the wheel of the British government told me the other day during a discussion about Libya. “These days we only use the term National Transitional Council – NTC for short. They are essentially the de facto government in waiting.”

I mention this only because, despite almost six months of bombing and bloodshed, insisting on calling the rebels the NTC appears to be the only new idea Her Majesty’s government has had in addressing the stalemated conflict in Libya.

Policy remains wedded to the maxim that it is “just a matter of time” before Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi crumbles and the NTC steps in to fill the vacuum. But in reality, all those six months of nightly airstrikes have achieved is to turn a halfhearted military action into a wholehearted farce. The Foreign Office is worryingly starting to sound like Iraq’s former information minister during the 2003 invasion, Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf (mocked as “Comical Ali”), who famously announced the U.S. military was on the verge of surrendering to Iraqi forces the day before coalition tanks rolled into Baghdad.

A Foreign Office spokesperson insisted to me last week that “the tide is moving inexorably against Gadhafi. Pressure is increasing on all sides, politically, economically and militarily. Militarily there is steady progress across the board. Reports suggest that morale amongst the regime’s forces is low. Economic sanctions are restricting Gadhafi’s ability to wage war on his own people. We will sustain our actions for as long as is necessary. Time is on our side, it is not on the side of Gadhafi.”

So just as Vladimir and Estragon waited hopelessly for Godot, in Samuel Becket’s absurdist play “Waiting for Godot,” British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Libyan rebels, sorry the NTC, wait, and wait, for Gadhafi’s fall. But as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to months, Gadhafi’s grip on power is as firm or tenuous as it was when the NATO airstrikes began, while the integrity of the rebel forces, and the West, is in tatters.

Cameron, Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama have primarily relied on airstrikes in Libya to avoid Western military casualties on the ground. Instead of having the courage to take decisive action, they have adopted a strategy that has dragged the war out and led to the deaths of increasing numbers of civilians. These are the very people that the United Nations mandate for action in Libya was supposed to protect.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the West’s lack of resolve in Libya has also emboldened Syrian President Bashar Assad to crush his political opposition. The Syrian dictator has been killing his countrymen without fear of reprisal from Western democracies, whose leaders look increasingly unsure of themselves on the global stage.

Right now there isn’t much left to bomb. That’s why, last week, NATO bombers destroyed three Libyan state TV transmitters and killed three reporters in order to, in the words of the British Defense Ministry, “disrupt the broadcast of Gadhafi’s murderous rhetoric, which has repeatedly sought to incite violence against fellow Libyans”.

There is speculation that a militant Islamist rebel militia, the Al-Nidaa brigade, which is linked to the still-unexplained murder of rebel army commander Abdel-Fattah Younis, had been receiving coded orders via state television. The bombing came as NTC fighters stormed an Al-Nidaa base in Benghazi days after the brigade freed more than 200 prisoners from jail in the city. Many of the prisoners are reportedly linked to militant Islamic groups.

Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, sat for a bizarre interview with The New York Times last week in which he claimed that an alliance now existed between the regime and Islamist cleric Ali Sallabi. This was subsequently dismissed by the Gadhafi regime itself, by the NTC and by the British government. But the fact that the regime had conducted talks with Sallabi, particularly in the wake of Younis’ death, suggests there are splits in the rebel camp, which run deeper than previously thought.

We now have a divided and possibly splintering rebel force, Gadhafi still ruling over half the country, and American and European attention focused on economic woes at home. Intervention lite has reduced the West to a laughingstock. One British government insider joked that the only way out of the stalemate was for Gadhafi to suffer a stroke, as there was “precious little left to bomb now.” Short of mortal illness or assassination, a negotiated settlement with the Libyan leader looks ever more likely.

Last month British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, signaled Gadhafi could even stay in Libya if he stood down now. Such an outcome is unlikely, but Seif al-Islam’s talks with Sallabi also appear to have touched on this issue, although Sallabi insists Gadhafi cannot remain in Libya. Increasingly, British officials are saying that what happens to the Libyan leader is up to the Libyan people, not the international community, even though Gadhafi was indicted by the International Criminal Court earlier this year.

You don’t have to be a hard-bitten realist to acknowledge that if you intervene in someone else’s civil war you should choose the side most likely to win, and then make sure that it does. Intervention in Libya remains the right thing, but war is all or nothing. And the longer this war goes on, the less likely are we to see any sort of political outcome that benefits Libya’s long-suffering people or the wider world.

Time may not be on Gadhafi’s side, but it is fast running out for the West as well. Gadhafi only has to survive. The West needs to finish what it started before its inaction totally discredits its leadership and values. Otherwise, the “Arab spring” will face a very bleak winter indeed.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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