ISSN 2330-717X

Endgame In Libya – Analysis


By George Grant


The events of the past 24 hours have been dramatic, but there should be no doubt that the demise of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime remains a case of “when” and not “if”. At the time of publication, Tripoli remains cut off from key resources and surrounded by rebel and international forces. Thirty miles to the west, rebels retain possession of the strategically-vital staging post of Zawiyah, situated on the coastal road to Tunisia, and control the oil refinery on which Tripoli depends for power. To the south, Garyan, which controls the road to Algeria, is also in rebel hands. To the east lies rebel-held Misurata and beyond that Benghazi and eastern Libya, which Gaddafi has not controlled since February. To Tripoli’s north is the sea and an impenetrable maritime blockade. Though undoubtedly a setback, the fact that Saif al-Islam remains at large should not detract from the reality that his father’s days as “Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya” are numbered. As this briefing is being published, rebel forces have breached the walls of Colonel Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in western Tripoli.

The fall and rise of Saif al-Islam

The re-emergence of Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, on the Libyan stage is in many ways just another extraordinary development in an already extraordinary conflict. The circumstances surrounding his supposed capture by rebel forces in Tripoli on 22nd August are unclear, and it is difficult to say which scenario is less plausible: that a target as high-value as Saif could have escaped rebel custody so soon after being captured, or that rebel forces could have been so short-sighted as to believe that they could pretend to have captured him indefinitely.

Whatever the case may be, the belief in Saif’s capture was near-universal. The International Criminal Court had seemingly verified Saif’s arrest and was forced to make an embarrassing retraction this morning after the Libyan leader’s son appeared in an armoured convoy outside the Rixos hotel, the bolthole of many international journalists, and proclaimed that the rebel advance into Tripoli had all been part of an elaborate regime trap. Saif has claimed that regime forces control 80 per cent of the city, and that they are close to crushing the revolution.

The lack of clarity over Said Gaddafi’s whereabouts was typical of this fast-changing situation, in which a number of crucial factors remain unclear.

Three unknowns

First, it is not known how much of Tripoli either side actually holds. Whilst regime forces do still control a number of districts across the capital, it is highly implausible that Gaddafi forces control anything like 80 per cent of Tripoli, as Saif al-Islam has asserted. Likewise, though independent media sources have confirmed a rebel presence in Tripoli, it is not clear how much of the capital they control, or whether key installations such the Libyan State television station are under rebel control, or have just been caught up in the chaos that has engulfed most of the city.


Secondly, no one knows how many forces are still fighting for Gaddafi. A captured regime colonel, Wissam Miland, recently asserted that regime forces were being held together through fear and mercenary-enforced martial law. The overriding priority for rebel forces and the international community must be to encourage these remaining regime forces to defect, rather than creating circumstances where they will have no choice but to fight. In order to do this, it must be made absolutely clear that it is not too late for them to abandon the regime, and that if they do so, they will not be subjected to retribution, and that they can play an active role in post-Gaddafi Libya. If regime forces cannot be persuaded to defect, the conflict may continue to drag on.

The third unknown at present is the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi himself. There have been various conflicting reports on this point, including claims that Gaddafi has fled to Tunisia; that he remains in his compound at Bab al-Aziziya in western Tripoli; that he has retreated to his hometown of Sirte; and even that he is in an underground basement beneath the Rixos hotel, using the foreign journalists above as a human shield. Wherever Gaddafi may be, it seems clear is that he is no longer in full command of regime forces. Most analysts have concluded that Saif and others close to the Colonel have been de facto leaders of the regime for some time. At present, Gaddafi’s presence is of largely symbolic, not practical, significance.

The Endgame

Unless rebel forces can persuade Gaddafi loyalists to abandon him, the fight for Tripoli will be extremely costly in both blood and treasure. Even taking account of NATO’s success in eliminating regime targets deemed to pose a threat to civilians (British forces alone have destroyed some 900 such targets since 19th March 2011), the limited military capacity of rebel forces remains a serious impediment to any ambition to remove Gaddafi from power.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) recognises this deficiency, and has consequently pursued a strategy of encouraging a coup d’état from within. In order to achieve this outcome, it is vital that the NTC assure Gaddafi loyalists that if they do defect, they will be safe. The NTC’s blueprint for a post-Gaddafi Libya released earlier this month revealed that the council has already quietly recruited some 800 regime security officials to comprise the post-Gaddafi government-security apparatus. Likewise, the document revealed council plans to transfer up to 5,000 policemen serving in units not ideologically committed to Gaddafi to a post-Gaddafi police force. These preliminary efforts appear to have at least partially made the rebels’ recent gains in Tripoli possible. The rebel advance on Tripoli was accompanied by reports of entire regime units shedding their uniforms and abandoning their weapons rather than choosing to resist, as well as popular uprisings in many parts of the capital. If the rebels can persuade the comparatively limited number of units still loyal to Gaddafi to defect, then the process they have laid out will be completed and Tripoli will fall.

First steps for a post-Gaddafi Libya

Though Libya’s infrastructure may be weak by Western standards, it is by no means non-existent, as was virtually the case in Afghanistan in 2001. Former regime security forces can and must have a significant role in stabilising post-Gaddafi Libya. As the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said in June: “One of the first things that should happen once Tripoli falls is that someone should get on the phone to the former Tripoli chief of police and tell him he’s got a job and he needs to ensure the safety and security of the people of Tripoli.”

In addition to incorporating former regime security forces into a post-Gaddafi regime, the NTC and its international partners should draw upon the significant administrative and technical skills of former civil servants under the Gaddafi regime. Although these functionaries will have to adapt to working as part of a representative government, their expertise will be valuable in compensating for the gaps in the NTC’s capabilities, and in ensuring continued Libyan ownership of this revolution.

Finally, Libya’s vast economic potential, and particularly its oil sector, will be crucial to the country’s recovery. Libya once contributed two per cent of global oil output, a rate which, if restored, will bring much-needed revenue and economic development to the country. Thus, rebuilding the country’s badly-damaged oil infrastructure must be one of the first priorities of any post-Gaddafi government. ENI, Total and other major oil companies have already expressed their desire to return to Libya as soon as possible, and the next government must do everything in its power to facilitate such steps forward.

The international community has both a responsibility and an interest in providing technical and financial assistance to Libya during the post-Gaddafi transition period. Countries such as the United Kingdom and United States have learned important lessons about how to engage in effective post-conflict reconstruction over the past decade, and these lessons will need to be put to good use once Gaddafi falls.

There has been speculation that a UN peacekeeping force will be required to prevent the emergence of a security vacuum post-Gaddafi. Such an assessment is premature. So long as the NTC abides by its declared strategy of incorporating as much of the extant regime security architecture into a post-Gaddafi settlement as possible, a Libyan solution to this challenge is achievable.

Clearly, there will be significant challenges in securing a stable transition to representative and democratic governance in Libya. The Libyan rebels are comprised of a coalition of divergent groups and interests, united by their opposition to Colonel Gaddafi. The rebel ranks include a cross-section of Libyan society, including lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers, Islamists and the unemployed. Just as this broad-based opposition has been a source of strength in galvanising the Libyan people against Gaddafi, it may also be a weakness, as pre-existing divisions between this heterogeneous group may intensify once Gaddafi has been ousted.

Likewise, the transitional government will have to balance the aspirations of those involved in the fighting on the rebels’ three different fronts. Rebel soldiers on the eastern front achieved the least progress against Gaddafi forces during this conflict, but – by virtue of geographical proximity as much as anything else – they retain the closest links to the leadership in Benghazi, and will want to be rewarded accordingly. By contrast, the rebel soldiers of the two other fronts, although not as close to the council in Benghazi, have undoubtedly had more success in delivering on its military objectives. The success of the rebels in Misurata in holding out against regime forces was invaluable in diverting regime forces away from the eastern front; in providing the rebels with their first bridgehead in western Libya; and in bolstering morale within the rebel movement. The rebels of the Nafusa mountains were primarily responsible for the spectacular military gains in western Libya that have led to the advance into Tripoli. As a consequence, the latter groups will expect greater representation in a post-Gaddafi environment than they currently enjoy in the NTC.

Balancing these expectations will be challenging, but not impossible. The NTC has shown admirable leadership in recent weeks, and appears capable of negotiating such political compromises which may arise in the aftermath of the war. For example, the fact that there have been no major instances of reprisal killings in rebel-held areas in western Libya indicates the NTC’s commitment to reconciliation and reconstruction rather than retribution. Indeed, the NTC Chairman, Mustafa Jalil, has said publicly that he will resign if reprisal killings take place in Tripoli in on a large scale.

The draft constitution drawn up by the NTC with international assistance is also an impressive document. It pledges that Libya should be governed as a representative, multi-party democracy; that women should be afforded a full and active role in the political, economic and social spheres; that the law recognise those accused of crimes as innocent until proven guilty; and that the rights of religious minorities to practice their religion freely should be respected. At present, this document is only an aspiration, but at the very least, points in the right direction.

Those sections of society whose views and objectives are irreconcilable with democracy, for instance Islamists, will need to be carefully managed, but this will not be impossible. As in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists have not played a decisive role in the Libyan uprising thus far. As evidenced in Iraq and Afghanistan, the popular appeal of Islamist ideology tends to correspond to failures of security and institutions, and is weakened when stable conditions reign. Should the NTC and the international community fail to deliver on their objectives and Libya return to war or profound instability, Islamism may then become a more substantial threat.

In summary, a post-Gaddafi Libya can succeed, but all sides in this conflict, including those sections of the regime that can be incorporated, will need to work together to deliver a stable outcome.

The Henry Jackson Society

The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics is a cross-partisan, British-based think-tank. Its founders and supporters are united by a common interest in fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.

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