Stay or Leave: The Role of Western Democracies in the Libyan Crisis

Tornadoes are among the planes being used by NATO

With the news last Friday that up to fifteen people had been killed in a NATO air strike against a rebel armed convoy, and another thirteen on Thursday, the efficacy of the international coalition’s efforts to assist in the democratisation of the Libyan state was once more called into question. Although there are reports that the rebels had been informed not to travel down the road on which the attack took place and that those involved may have been firing into the air at the time (possibly as a celebration) the mistaken killing of those desperately in need of help has done little to bolster public confidence in the mission.

The majority of coalition air strikes up to now have been successful beyond realistic expectation in both neutralising the regime’s military capabilities whist avoiding unnecessary casualties. The incident on 2nd April is the first wrongful targeting to be officially corroborated in the campaign, bringing with it fears of more to come. It should be noted however that whilst mistakes of this kind and the civilian/rebel casualties that follow in their wake will always make headlines, they are still very much isolated affairs in what up to now has been a display of expert military precision.

Perhaps the biggest public fear of those countries making up the bulk of the coalition forces (Britain, the US, and France) is of a lengthy, economically draining conflict offering little scope for a short-term solution. The recent rejection by the Libyan regime of a cease-fire offered by the rebels has deepened anxieties that the crisis may go on indefinitely. Where once the pattern of regime- and rebel-controlled regions of Libya was patchy and dispersed, the partitioning of forces between east and west is now almost complete.

With the rebels holding steadfastly to their base of Benghazi in the east of Libya and the government of Tripoli in the west doing the same, the stage looks set for a long war of attrition to take place. The rebels demand that the government forces besieging the country’s towns and cities must be removed and that Gaddafi step down. The regime says that these demands are impossible, that they and not the opposition forces are the government, and that until their legitimacy is re-acknowledged no peace will be created or sustained.

Whilst training, arming and assisting the rebels in their taking of the west might well be the most expedient way of ending the conflict, the international arms embargo and the clause of UN Resolution 1973 forbidding entry of any foreign occupation force onto Libyan soil means that this is also the least likely to occur. With the rebels too disorganised and poorly equipped to take on government strongholds and the regime’s forces immobilised by NATO air strikes we could see the erection of a permanent no-fly zone that eats up years of European and US taxpayers’ money.

If the rebels are unable to gain the ascendancy via military prowess what else can the western powers involved in the intervention be hoping for? Targeting Gaddafi directly has been fiercely resisted by defence officials even if not ruled out entirely by some politicians such as the British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. However there could well be an easier and better way to ensure both the protection of the Libyan people and the creation of the desired political transition that led to the crisis in the first place.

Through a combination of back room diplomacy and mounting global pressure on the Libyan authorities, particularly in the form of international asset freezes that sever vital funding to the regime, many of Gaddafi’s formerly loyal allies have been persuaded to defect.

If, working within the parameters of the UN resolution and also in line with the wishes of both the Arab League and the African Union, the western powers can bring about an internal collapse in the Gaddafi power base, then this would clear the road for opposition forces. Indeed it could be argued that we are seeing this happen now as high ranking officials from Gaddafi’s inner political circle such as the foreign minister and former intelligence chief Moussa Koussa resign from their positions and decamp for British soil. If this trend continues then the conflict may end much sooner than is currently suspected.

Of course there are those who claim that while officials such as Moussa Koussa may be willing to jump ship and leave, those most tightly associated with the Gaddafi regime – i.e. the Gaddafis themselves – are likely to be less susceptible to the diplomatic whisperings of western politicians. It seems reasonable to assume that the now notorious LSE graduate Saif Gaddafi and the younger and more hard line son Mutassim Gaddafi (acting National Security Adviser) will be little persuaded by plans to abandon their father and usher in a new political system in which they are bereft of their former privileges.

These are cogent arguments and the implication that the crisis is far from over looks to many as well founded as any assertions to the contrary. However, even if a solution to the Libyan conflict were to remain elusive for the next five, ten or even 100 years there are still several compelling reasons for sustaining our support.

Britain, the US and France entered into and continue to pursue the Libyan mission for the very best of reasons. They have a mandate from the UN and the support of both the Arab and African worlds to do all that is necessary to protect Libyan civilians under international humanitarian law. There has been no pretext seeking for an invasion and indeed there has been no invasion still. Britain has no vested interests in deposing Gaddafi. In the recent past we have striven for rapprochement and a re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the colonel. Rather, the western governments were in the end ethically compelled to intervene in Libya to prevent the mass slaughter promised by Gaddafi as he aligned his troops on the outskirts of Benghazi ready for a final cleansing of those who sought to oppose his rule.

There are two things being defended here. First is the right of innocent civilians to be protected from the violence of repressive regimes. This is highlighted again and again in the text of the UN resolution wherein the safety of the Libyan people is foremost. Second is the right of not just the Libyan people but of all people to participate in the running of their country and to protest for reform.

Just as in Tunisia and then Egypt, the movement that Gaddafi attempted to violently crush was a movement for democracy; for better representation of the people by the state as well as greater political freedoms. If Gaddafi had not opened fire on the protesters we would be referring to them now as the Opposition rather than the rebels. They were forced to become “rebels” when the regime began its military campaign against them. This does not mean we no longer know who they are or what they stand for, only that the political contest they struggled to effect has been replaced against their will by one of armament and force.

Finally, we are sending a message. The international community will not stand by and idly tolerate the abhorrent behaviour of rulers who would violently seek to deny their people a political voice. To those who would undermine the UN, saying that it is toothless or that it too often lacks the courage of its convictions, here is proof of the opposite. This is the international community at work defending its values. This is the good fight, and the longer we have to fight it the better we represent ourselves and the world as a whole.

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