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Bogged Down in Libya

Having ceded at least some of the responsibility for prosecuting Qaddafi’s downfall to the outside world, the rebels already show signs of blaming the West for the hiatus. The demonstrations of gratitude in early April have turned to protests of accusation, after NATO took the reins of the allied effort from the US and ceased offensive bombing. Sorties increased, but the potency of the attacks sharply diminished as member states flinched from the prospect of collateral damage. NATO’s efforts to overcome its internal fractures, between the gung-ho such as Britain and France and the force-resistant such as Turkey and Germany, ensured that for the most the lowest denominator prevailed. Britain and France tried to revive the war fever momentum, but the more the war dragged on and the more the colonel adapted his tactics to guerrilla-style warfare the more cautious the alliance seemed to grow. “NATO hasn’t learnt how to transfer all its conventional might into fighting a nonconventional war without incurring civilian casualties,” says a Western security official in Benghazi. He was uncertain whether NATO had defined a limit beyond which it would rush to the rebels’ defense if the colonel’s forces advanced.

Protesters cast aside the foreign flags they had jubilantly waved days earlier. “NATO is no longer helping us,” wails Iman Bugaighis, a council spokesman. “There’s a discordance between the political message and what’s happening on the ground. We have cities full of people who are being bombed and shelled and left without medical aid. He could be in Benghazi soon. We can’t defeat him.”

Renewed NATO bombardment of Qaddafi’s tanks brought relief to Misrata and stemmed the colonel’s eastern advance, though it was not clear for how long. But after weeks of seeing their fortunes wane, rebel leaders who had champed against a stalemate that might have partitioned the country now almost welcome it for the respite it might bring. Some who had fumed against any accommodation with Qaddafi now ask why Western powers are not more vigorously pursuing a cease-fire, or even some form of reconciliation, which might let them preserve their current holdings in the east.

The alternative is ghastly. The sandstorm season in Libya is fast approaching, and with it the prospect of protection from NATO bombing. Under its cover, the colonel could yet send his pickup trucks, disguised with rebel flags, into Benghazi. Diplomats who had earlier said they were coming to stay are making contingency plans to flee within an hour’s notice, waving goodbye to free Libya.

The consequences of a takeover by Qaddafi of the east are worth contemplating. Inside Libya it would precipitate a humanitarian crisis and a mass exodus, probably of no lesser magnitude than that which followed Saddam Hussein’s suppression of his 1991 uprising. Externally, it would quicken the tempo of the Arab regimes’ counter-reformations, raising the bar on the levels of violence despots feel they can get away with. It would mark yet another jolt for badly dented US potency in the region; and it would turn the West’s newly acquired Islamist friends once more into embittered foes fighting for the defense of Darna and the Green Mountains , spawning another generation of Safim bin Qumus. The risks of al-Qaeda gaining a foothold on the Mediterranean coast stem not from the rebels winning, but rather from their defeat.

—Benghazi, April 14, 2011

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