By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
Suddenly the Libyan situation has become more complicated. The allied air campaign to enforce a no-fly zone over much of Libya and to save civilian population from pro-government attacks has taken the crisis into a different level. Acting in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, allied forces, composed of US, French, British jet fighters, among others, have struck pro-Qaddafi troops in various locations, aborting a major attack on the rebel-held city of Benghazi on Saturday.
The last-minute military intervention may have changed the course of events for both Qaddafi and those rebelling against his four-decade rule. Forces loyal to Libya’s strongman have been pushing back the rebels in the east while recapturing or besieging key cities in the west. The battle for Benghazi would have been the biggest yet and until the allied intervened earlier in the week, Qaddafi’s forces were sure to enter the city and hunt down rebel leaders.
The no-fly embargo came only after Arab League members adopted a historic decision asking for UN intervention to protect Libyan civilians. Rebel estimates put the number of civilian deaths at the hands of pro-Qaddafi forces since the civilian unrest started in the middle of February at no less than 8,000. Humanitarian agencies have accused the Libyan regime of committing atrocities in Al Zawiya, Misurata and Ajdabiya. The UN has already asked the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the Qaddafi regime.
The air strikes have raised a number of criticisms. Russia and China are opposed to them while Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa expressed concern over increasing civilian casualties. The US, which insists that it will hand over command of the allied forces to France and Britain soon, has made it clear that the campaign does not aim at removing Qaddafi or putting foreign troops on the ground. It has underlined the fact that at least two Arab states, Qatar and the UAE, are participating in the implementation of the no-fly zone over Libya.
Foreign intervention, even under the UN banner, is problematic. Col. Qaddafi has accused the West of launching a crusade to colonize his country and steal its oil. He vowed to fight a long war against this “barbaric aggression.” The longer he resists, the more likely that the country will remain splintered and the human cost will rise. Given that he still has access to resources, financial and otherwise, his regime can still be dangerous not only to Libyans but to his neighbors and across the Mediterranean. His record is blemished with innocent blood in many countries through terror.
For the Arabs, the stalemate in Libya poses a different challenge. The Arab League is not designed to intervene in the internal affairs of member states. It has already crossed that line in Libya and such precedent will not be encouraged by other members, many of whom are worried about civil unrest in their own countries. The longer the air campaign continues, the more pressure Arab states will feel. In their rejection of any threat to Libya’s territorial integrity and sovereignty they will face the problem of finding a political solution to Libya’s quandary.
For the West the biggest question is how long will they maintain the air embargo. The political side of the equation is not as straightforward as the military. At one point participating nations will have to address domestic concerns. After Iraq and Afghanistan Americans and Europeans have no stomach for lengthy military adventures.
For the Libyan rebels the air embargo allows them to regroup and try to recapture towns and cities from pro-Qaddafi troops. But they are disorganized and poorly armed. To take on Qaddafi in Tripoli will require massive military build-up. Washington and its allies are divided on that issue and only France has recognized the Transitional National Council so far.
The problem with the Libyan question now is that no single country or group wants to own it. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is willing to help in enforcing the no-fly zone but that is as far as it is willing to go – for now. France and Britain may appear united in their intent now, but it is unlikely that they will move beyond the current stage of support for international action.
Qaddafi is no fool and even though he is beleaguered and may eventually lose, he is betting on his foes losing interest in him after some time. A stalemate in Libya will give his regime precious time to influence events internally. His regime has proved to be tenacious, violent and arrogant. It is unlikely that he will choose to go away peacefully and willingly. He will use his countrymen as human shields and attempt to show himself as victim.
International intervention has worked in the Balkans in the 1990s, although not before unbelievable atrocities were committed. Now Libya poses a serious challenge for the international community, but particularly for the Arab world.
– Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman.