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    Middle East
     May 6, 2011

Fatigue shows in Libya
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi is showing first signs of military strain, if mostly because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has become so desperate that it has embarked on an assassination campaign against him. It is yet to be seen how many more self-declared red lines the leaders of the intervention will breach to avoid - or delay at great human cost - losing the "humanitarian" war.

It is hard to overlook that operations to "crush the head of the snake" (kill or capture rogue leaders that refuse to be defeated) seem to be the latest military fashion in the West. First it was Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo, who is persistently rumored to have been captured by French commandos rather than by the local forces of his enemy, Alassane Ouattara. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki lays out the case for how the intervention

on the part of the international community, and specifically the French, was misguided and morally dubious from the start. [1]

More recently, Osama bin Laden's assassination in Pakistan has raised considerable controversy. [2] Somewhere in between, at least two of what looked a whole lot like attempts on Gaddafi's life took place in Libya - one about 10 days ago, [3] and another one on Saturday, killing his obscure youngest son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi. "Targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of US security policy," Stephen Walt, Harvard international affairs professor, writes in Foreign Policy. "...And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly."

It bears noting that the bombing that took the life of Saif al-Arab came roughly at the same time as a new peace offer from Gaddafi, which NATO and the rebels rejected promptly. The moral ambiguity - or outright hypocrisy - of the assassination attempts is also underscored by the fact that Obama has publicly ruled out killing Gaddafi several times in the past.

A desperate move though this may be, it is unclear how it would help the situation in Libya, beyond giving NATO a symbolic opportunity to declare victory, George W Bush-in-Iraq style, and to deal with the consequences later. Those consequences would be unpleasant, to say the least - for if Gaddafi goes, two alternative evils wait in store.

Firstly, like Osama bin Laden, he is the symbol of his side, but in practice he seems to have delegated a lot of the direct responsibilities to those around him, specifically his sons. To borrow a corporate metaphor, he is more like the chairman of the board rather than the chief executive officer. His son Saif al-Islam is in charge of propaganda and diplomacy (and most likely designated successor) while his sons Khamis and Mutassem seem to be spearheading the military campaign.

This means that although the government in Tripoli would be weakened by his death, it is unlikely to crumble, at least in the immediate aftermath, and the civil war would become even more entrenched as many Libyans would perceive him as a martyr fighting an invasion. The international community - beyond NATO members and a few countries in the Persian Gulf - would also become more vocal against the intervention.

Secondly, if the government does collapse eventually, this would plunge the country into utter chaos and would most likely result in an atrocious civil war and massive waves of refugees flooding North Africa and Europe. Libyan society has never been particularly cohesive, and a lot of bridges were burnt in the last few months as the rebellion pitted the western part of the country against the eastern one. In addition, arms proliferation has soared, [4] and various factions and interests have mushroomed; tribalism is also rampant. This situation is a recipe for disaster.

Some could argue that the unsuccessful assassination attempts were meant to deter Gaddafi, and there are some signs of success - for example, around the time of the first bombing, the colonel pulled his forces away from the center of the largest rebel stronghold in the western part of Libya, the town of Misrata which has been under siege for months.

A stepped-up NATO campaign against his forces, which reportedly killed hundreds of soldiers and destroyed many dozens of tanks and other vehicles, helped degrade his military capability and beat back subsequent incursions in the city and in smaller rebel centers in the western mountains.

However, all this did not contribute to human security or to the protection of civilians. Civilian casualties from the air campaign aside, the frustration of Gaddafi's attempts at conquest of the rebel bastions has led to his use of inaccurate rockets and artillery which have killed and wounded many. While his army failed in repeated attempts to take over Misrata's port and vital link to the world, it managed to lay mines in the waters next to it, and sustained rocket and mortar fire on it despite the bombings.

NATO, meanwhile, is showing signs of strain as well. Recently, France reacted sharply against Italy's decision to grant travel visas to thousands of North African refugees, [5] and even threatened to leave the Schengen treaty. Speak about moral ambiguity - for "humanitarian warrior" Sarkozy, the use of violence is quite fine, but shouldering some of the burdens in his own country isn't.

The rebels, too, are not doing very well - they have so failed to make significant territorial gains against Gaddafi, despite the air campaign. The eastern front is in a stalemate. They did manage to conquer briefly a key border post in the western part of the country, but were later overrun by the government forces, and the fighting has been going back-and-forth since, occasionally spilling into Tunisia. [6]

On Wednesday, moreover, their spokesman said that the Transitional National Council in Benghazi needed urgently US$1.5 billion. "We need this for medical supplies, for food supplies, to keep the minimum functions of normal life - electricity, running hospitals etc," he said, quoted by al-Jazeera.

Yet the alliance - or the most vocal parts of it - is digging in its heels. It seems remotely possible that the strategy is to pack up and run after a symbolic success, but Western military advisors present among the rebels and all the other military assistance (shipments of "non-lethal" military equipment have been confirmed; rumors of covert forces on the ground and arms supplies are becoming louder and louder) tell a different tale. Just last week, Italy's parliament approved an expanded role of the country in the war.

In past interventions in civil wars - Vietnam stands as an extreme case, though Bosnia is also an example - military advisers have been a prelude to "boots on the ground". The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized enforcing a "no-fly zone" over the country, specifically prohibits an invasion, but it has already been stretched so thin that it is irrelevant to the campaign. Moreover, it appears that a modified narrative is being prepared to justify wider involvement.

A couple of weeks ago, right before Gaddafi pulled his forces from the center of Misrata, several world leaders suggested that "humanitarian" forces might be sent there. While the colonel seems to have preempted that - or at least delayed it - now we are starting to hear more and more about Gaddafi's war crimes. The International Criminal Court's top prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who in the past has been accused of bias, [7] announced on Wednesday that he will seek an arrest warrant for the Libyan leader and at least two aides for crimes against humanity.

Talk about justice, Obama-kills-Bin Laden-style. A suspicious spin is also emerging about the use of rape as a weapon of war; Moreno-Ocampo specifically accused Gaddafi of this in his speech. There are a number of reports of rape in Libya, and such a heinous crime cannot be taken lightly, but neither should be manipulated allegations of it. "We have a few credible cases of gender based violence and rape, but the evidence is not there at this point to suggest it is of a systematic nature, or an official policy," said last week Fred Abrahams, a representative of Human Rights Watch.

The implicit paradigm is Bosnia. But in Bosnia there were rape camps and systematic campaigns to impregnate "enemy" women in order to challenge and destroy the identity of said enemy. This is not - certainly doesn't seem to be, even from rebel reports - the case in Libya. The collective memory of the international community, however, is short and generally pays little attention to detail.

In any case, such a tactic would indicate that Gaddafi has lost all hope to rule a united Libya again, and is seeking to preempt any possibility for a compromise in order to consolidate his own supporters. I have argued before that he might resort to such tactics, [8] but only as a weapon of last resort, and he just doesn't seem to be nearly as desperate at this time.

A recent al-Jazeera report shows stockpiles of Viagra and Cialis, of which rebels claim to have found large amounts on captured Gaddafi soldiers and in bombed government tanks. [9] The allegation goes that Gaddafi ordered his men to rape "rebel" women, and provided them with the means to do so (perhaps less a statement that government troops are impotent as an implication that they are acting against their own will).

What seems a bit strange in the images - though obviously this is only circumstantial evidence - is that the medications showed seem right off the shelf, neatly packaged with bar-codes and bearing Pfizer logos. Throughout Africa, on the other hand, and specifically on the black market on which Gaddafi reportedly relies heavily, countless generic medications circulate to treat anything from worms to impotence to Malaria to AIDS (the HIV epidemic and expensive AIDS medication patents have significantly boosted this underground trade).

It is hard to imagine, to say the least, that these new containers were found either on the bodies of captured soldiers in a prolonged military campaign, or in burnt-out tanks. It looks too much like a manipulation, and has the logic of one - let's recall, for example, how the US invading invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to bring there women's rights.

Overall, the assisted civil war in Libya seems to be entering a new and uglier stage, whether that involves a protracted civil war after an eventual NATO pullout or a ground war. In both cases, the humanitarian cause will likely suffer the most.

1. What the World Got Wrong in Cote D'Ivoire, Foreign Policy, April 29, 2011.
2. Concerns raised over shooting of unarmed bin Laden, burial, Reuters, May 4, 2011.
3. NATO Bombs Gadhafi Cribs (But Not to Kill Him, Honest), Wired, April 26, 2011.
4. Qaddafi's Great Arms Bazaar, Foreign Policy, April 8, 2011.
5. France and Italy push for reform of Schengen treaty, BBC April 26, 2011.
6. Libyan fighting spills into Tunisia, The Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 2011.
7. African Union accuses ICC prosecutor of bias, Reuters, January 30, 2011.
8. Gaddafi reaches tipping point, Asia Times Online, February 25, 2011.
9. Gaddafi forces accused of rape, al-Jazeera, May 3, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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Libyan waiting game favors Gaddafi (Apr 6, '11)



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