Whose Victory in Libya?

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara, Turkey

History is already being rewritten to accommodate the new reality in Libya – today’s reality, that is, because noone can tell what the country will look like in another year. According to Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, writing in the New York Review of Books, NATO ‘helped’  the rebels to ‘oust Gaddafi’. This is an early inversion of reality because it was the rebels who helped NATO, not the other way around. Incapable of overthrowing the government by themselves, they opened the gates to an attack on their country by foreign forces. In return, NAT0 paved the way for their advance westward all the way to Tripoli and allowed them to take credit for the victory. It was NATO which turned an uprising which would have been over within a week into a civil war in the course of which tens of thousands of lives have been lost. It was NATO which, in the name of protecting civilians, killed them in the process of bombing Libya to saturation level (an admitted 7500 military sorties), destroying any possibility that the government could defend itself. Between the Libyan government and NATO this was not a war but an onslaught. The fate of Libya could be the fate of any small country, as it has been the fate of many small countries during the last two centuries of Western aggression against the non-European and non-American world. 

Even to call this NATO’S war is misleading. Basically this was a war decided upon by the governments of Britain, France and the United States, with other countries (Canada, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Norway) joining in. NATO was their camouflage. Cameron and Sarkozy have disclaimed self-interest but the jockeying over prior right to Libya’s oil resources has already begun amongst the new consortium called the ‘Friends of Libya’. Libya is discovering friends whom it never knew it had.

Outside intervention originated in the calls for help coming from Benghazi. Quick to see an opportunity, at a time bastions of western support across the Arab world were crumbling or under threat,  France, Britain and the US began mobilising. Their first priority was the fig leaf behind which they could launch a military attack. This was duly provided by the UN Security Council. Resolution 1970, (February 26) imposing sanctions and an arms embargo: resolution 1973 (March 17) declared a no-fly zone over Libya and authorised the governments enforcing it to take all necessary measures to protect civilian life. Noone chose these governments. They seemed to choose themselves, but all declared that they had no intention of putting ‘boots on the ground’ (as they put it) or overthrowing the government in Tripoli. Their intervention was solely dictated by humanitarian concern, so they said.  

From this starting point the imposition of a no-fly zone soon metastasised into an all-out air attack on Libya from warships in the Mediterranean and bases in Italy.  The arms embargo was soon broken and ‘all necessary measures’ taken not just to protect civilian life but to win the war for the rebels and bring down Muammar Qaddafi. ‘All necessary measures’ also included the killing of civilians in the name of protecting civilians.  

Amnesty International has compiled a report detailing the crimes committed against each other by the rebels and the ‘pro-Gaddafi forces’, i.e., what was until the entry of the rebels into Tripoli behind a screen of NATO air attacks the government of Libya. What it omits or allows NATO spokesmen to explain away are the crimes committed by the intervening outside powers against the civilian population. A short list would include the bombing of water supplies, clinics, warehouses, markets, at least one hospital, the Nasser University in Tripoli, civilian homes, the offices of the Libyan Downs Syndrome Society and a guesthouse in Brega where a group of imams were staying ahead of a peace march towards Benghazi. Eleven were killed.  

The victims of NATO air attacks included many women and children. On August 8, 85 civilians were reported to have been killed in one attack east of Tripoli near the village of Zlitan (a ‘military staging area’ according to NATO).  On virtually all occasions involving the killing of civilians, many of them women and children,  NATO spokesmen have stonewalled,  claiming that the target was military and that they have no knowledge of civilian casualties, despite visual evidence to the contrary: on the few occasions when they have admitted civilian casualties, they have expressed regrets for mistakes in targeting or weapons system. 

To complete its picture of the violations of international law in Libya, Amnesty International  needed to focus on NATO’s role, beginning with the fact of intervention, the extent to which it exceeded the mandate (spurious in itself) issued by the UN Security Council and indeed the question of  whether it could be legitimized at all in international law. It needed to raise the question of proportionality, i.e. whether the risk to civilian life outweighed the rationale for military attack. In targeting the home of Saif al Arab al Qaddafi in Tripoli on May 1, NATO’s military command must have known that women and children were likely to be present: they missed their intended target, Muammar al Qaddafi, but killed his son and three of his grandchildren. The argument that Saif al Arab’s home was a military command and control centre was a straight out lie. The office of the Libyan Downs Syndrome Society was bombed apparently because the NATO military command thought Qadhafi would be there.  These clearly deliberate attempts to assassinate him raise another aspect of international law that Amnesty did not feel inclined to investigate.  

On the question of the loss of civilian life resulting from  air attacks, Amnesty finds that NATO ‘did admit to a number of fatal mistakes including one on June  19 in  Tripoli that led to civilian deaths’. A later passage refers to several civilians ‘reportedly’ being killed (rather than actually being killed as seems to have been the case) when ‘a projectile’ (a loose tile?) struck their homes. Amnesty allows a NATO spokesman to explain what happened. There was a ‘weapons system failure’ which ‘might have caused [sic.] the loss of innocent life’ and for this loss of life the spokesman expressed NATO’s regrets.

There is also a reference to an air strike near Tripoli on June 20. The target was a ‘compound’ belonging to ‘one of Colonel Gaddafi’s associates’ (i.e. a senior Libyan government official). At least one women and two children were killed because the ‘compound’ for all its deliberately intended military implications was in fact a cluster of homes. According to the NATO spokesmen, however, despite the killing of the woman and children, this was a ‘precision strike’ launched against a ‘legitimate military target’. At the very least, the question of proportionality again arises. If NATO did have evidence of military equipment inside the compound (never shown) it also had evidence of the presence of women and children. The probable target was the senior government official himself, who escaped unhurt.  

Amnesty quotes reporters present as saying that ‘at least some of the targeted buildings in the compound appeared to be residential’ and leaves it at that. It mentions the bombing of three television satellite dishes as a possible infraction of the laws of war regarding the prohibition of attacks on civilian infrastructure but  has nothing to say about infinitely more serious violations of international humanitarian law  by NATO.  There is no mention of the 85 civilians reported to have been killed in the one strike in August; no mention of the killing of the clerics in Brega; no mention of the killing of Gaddafi’s son and grandchildren; no mention of the continuing attacks – mistaken or otherwise – on civilian infrastructure from the beginning of the air war until the arrival of the rebels in Tripoli. Neither is there any mention of the offers of negotiations made by Qaddafi and by the African Union, all of them rejected by the rebels for the simple reason that as long as they had NATO behind them they were not going to stop until the government in Tripoli was overthrown. Without NATO – in the air and arming, training and leading them on the ground with special forces –  they would have had to negotiate or they would have been routed. Insofar as NATO’s role is concerned, Amnesty’s report is a shameful whitewash. 

The bargains that will have been made between the rebels and the governments of the United States, France and Britain will remain hidden under the table for as long as possible  and only slowly will we see what they will involve: generous concessions to the western oil majors, contracts for the reconstruction of what NATO’s missiles have destroyed,  reopened and expanded embassies,  military missions to train and reorganize the Libyan army and  contractors riding around in Humvees to provide security.  Naturally the costs of the war – of ‘liberating’ Libya – will be born by Libya.   The establishment of NATO military bases will be on the cards, along with Libya’s participation in the US military command for Africa. Libya will be plugged back into the international system, which will mean an economy restructured  on the basis of  IMF advice and loans. There will be no more talk of an African central bank and investment agency funded by Libya, projects which Qaddafi had already set in motion.

No more than Iraq is this scenario likely to unfold smoothly. The transitional council is internally fractious and more likely to head in the direction of implosion than consolidation as a government that can agree on a set program. The war is still far from over, requiring NATO participation every step of the way if the last strongholds of the deposed government are to be overcome. Even if Qaddafi and Saif al Islam are captured or killed resistance to the regime in Tripoli is likely to continue. It did not ride into power on the crest of a popular revolution but is a product of western intervention. The triumphant smiles in Tripoli of Cameron,  Sarkozy and the latter’s philosophical amanuensis, Bernard-Henri Levy, are the smiles of a tiger relishing his last meal and contemplating his next. No western attack on an Arab country has ever ended well for the local people and Libya is unlikely to be any exception.   

The success of western military force  in the Middle East  is ominous. Iraq and Libya are dangerous precedents. With the support of European governments, the US has subjected the Syrian government to slow economic strangulation for the past two decades. Its collapse or overthrow would represent the greatest strategic gain for the US, Israel, Britain and France since the Second World War, surpassing the isolation of Egypt through the Camp David peace treaty and the destruction of unified Arab Iraq. The repercussions would be felt at every level of Arab politics. The Syrian regime is embattled and these powers can smell blood. They will hope that internal pressure will bring it down but if not they may set out on the same path that took them into Libya. This is certainly on their agenda, whatever they eventually decide.    

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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