Some of the coverage of the war in Libya makes it sound as though a rapid collapse of Gaddafi’s forces followed by a rapid transition to a democracy is a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately this is being very optimistic.
Rebel claims that Gaddafi’s forces would all surrender as soon as they took Tripoli as they were “cowards” or only fighting for Gaddafi out of fear have been proven wrong proven wrong by so far three days of resistance by Gaddafi loyalists in Tripoli. Many are fighting on because they fear what the rebels may do to them – and even some rebels fear there may be bloody chaos or civil war between rebel factions if Gaddafi is defeated.The Independent reported that:
‘Adem Husseini, 40, also from Manchester, foresaw a period of turbulence after Colonel Gaddafi and his regime are driven from power. "I am going to go back to the UK after the job is done, but I am not going to bring my family for the next three years. There are too many men with guns – a lot of them very young. I am talking about heavy weapons. Some people even have their own private tanks. We are fighting for freedom. History will record we were on the right side. But we are going to go through a very risky time.’ (1)
In April Hillary Clinton and Libyan defector Moussa Koussa warned of the risks of Libya descending into a long civil war and turning into another Somalia and becoming a haven for Al Qa’ida as a result of the chaos (2)
The rebels are split on regional, religious (moderate vs hardline fundamentalist Muslims) and tribal lines ;and there are rivalries among different military commanders and politicians for leadership, plus divisions between those who have opposed Gaddafi for decades and those (like TNC head Jalil) who recently defected.
Patrick Cockburn writes that ‘The rebel fighters in Misrata, who fought so long to defend their city, say privately that they have no intention of obeying orders from the TNC.’ (the rebel Transitional National Council).(3)
Guardian reporter Chris Stephen in Misrata reports ‘with the still unexplained murder of army commander Abdul Fatah Younis seeing units loyal to him coming back to the front and threatening violence against NTC officials they blame for the killing. Their anger was assuaged only with the appointment of a new army commander, Suleiman Obedi, who is from the same Obedi tribe as Younis. Another split has been between Misrata and Benghazi. After the assassination, Misrata rebel army spokesman Ibrahim Betalmal underlined to the Guardian that Misratan units did not accept orders from NTC military command, while continuing to remain on paper loyal to the NTC.’ (4)
(Even the imminent defeat of Gaddafi’s forces in Tripoli is uncertain, with rebel reports (also “confirmed” by the ICC) that Saif Gaddafi had been captured turning out to have been untrue or premature and fighting having continued even after rebels got to the centre of the city. (5) – (7)
Saif claimed the rebels had been defeated in ‘a trap’, which has happened several times when rebel forces took the centre of towns before being attacked from all sides by Gaddafi’s forces – though these claims could be propaganda too.)
The many different, unlikely and inconsistent stories told by the rebels about the killing of General Younis (a defector from Gaddafi to the rebels) and the subsequent dismissal of the entire Transitional National Council by it’s head Mustafa Abdul Jalil also shows serious divisions among the rebels. Some rebel stories said Younis was killed by Gaddafi’s forces (who strangely killed him and his bodyguard without killing any of the rebel troops ‘escorting’ or arresting Younes and his men to take them before the rebel council to answer charges of disloyalty). Other accounts by different TNC spokespeople said an Islamist rebel faction (8) – (13)
Photo: General Younes
Fighting between rival Islamist factions among the rebels has already happened long before they even reached Tripoli (14).
This and the attempted kidnapping of an Australian freelance journalist in rebel held Benghazi by two armed men in military fatigues suggests the TNC either isn’t in control of all the rebels, or else is behavihttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifng similarly to Gaddafi’s forces (15). It’s especially suspicious as Shelton was reporting on Younis’ death (16).
Personal rivalries are also a problem. In earlier stages of the war rebel officers sometimes refused even to talk to one another to co-ordinate offensives on towns held by Gaddafi (17).
Islamic factions are a big part of rebel military forces.
A French newspaper reported in April that one rebel Islamist faction is led by Hakim Al Sadi, who was previously with the Taliban in Afghanistan and says his aim is to “kill Gaddafi and establish an Islamic state in Libya.” (18)
The same report says that ‘Iman Bugaighis, the spokesman for the National Transition Council’ admitted that “We have twenty-five fighters on the front that were linked to al-Qaida… But they have done their prison, and they now only fight for the liberation of Libya.”(19)
So while Gaddafi’s claims that all the rebels are Al Qa’ida are not true, he seems to be right that some of them are.
So there is a serious risk of a Somalia or Afghanistan style civil war with the winners of each round splitting and fighting among one another – and of Libya splitting up like Somalia into two or three separate countries in practice (Somalia currently has Puntland and Somaliland as effectively separate states). The most likely split would be between the three main Italian colonies that made up Libya at independence, which correspond to the three main rebel factions – Cyrenaica in the East (the Benghazi rebels), Tripolitania in the North-west centred on Tripoli (the rebels who defected from Gaddafi) and Fezzan in the South-West(the western Berber and mountain Arab rebels) (20) -(21).
Many people have pointed out that Libya does not have the religious, ethnic or cultural diversity of Iraq - but Somalia is overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Muslims from the same nomadic herding culture, but has been in a decades long civil war between different clans and leaders and more recently between those Islamists willing to co-operate with the US against Al Qa'ida and those who refuse to. So civil war in Libya is still a serious risk.
NATO's involvement could make this more or less likely. If it aims to keep the rebels unified it could reduce the risk, but in Iraq the US and Coalition forces tended to play on divisions among Iraqis and try to get them fighting and distrusting each other in order to secure the oil laws and contracts wanted by US and other coalition oil companies (see Greg Muttitt's book 'Fuel on the Fire' on this). There is a serious risk of NATO governments doing the same in Libya.
There is also the risk of an in Iraq style insurgency either by armed Islamic fundamentalist groups at odds with the other rebels, Gaddafi supporters, or Libyans who don’t support Gaddafi but distrust the rebels due to their close links with foreign governments with ulterior motives (primarily oil contracts and prices more favourable to their firms; increased oil production and exports to benefit NATO countries’ oil importing economies; and control of air bases and ports – the US and Britain having had control of the Wheelus Field air base near Tripoli under Gaddafi’s predecessor King Idris) (22). The insurgency in Iraq lasted long after Saddam’s overthrow and his capture, with more insurgents having been opponents of Saddam than supporters.
NATO seem to have managed to organise and co-ordinate the rebel forces far more effectively than in the earlier stages of the war – probably because many NATO special forces, CIA men and French Foreign Legion troops are on the ground advising rebel units – as are NATO ‘private security contractors’ – their usual euphemism for mercenaries – who include former SAS men. Many reports from journalists on the ground in Libya talk of western men who were not keen to be filmed or interviewed – and the Obama administration told congress that CIA operations in Libya could not be overseen by them as they were not military forces (23) – (29) .
The "advisers" may actually be fighting - as tens of thousands of American 'military advisers' did in Nicaragua in the 80s on the side of the Contras who backed Somoza, the former dictator. Defence expert Robert Fox has suggested that UAE and Qatari Special forces trained by NATO special forces may have been leading the attack on Tripoli.
Whether NATO will be able to prevent rebel factions turning on one another if Gaddafi’s forces are entirely defeated is another matter.
It's possible that by making funding and trade deals conditional on rebels staying part of a single TNC NATO governments or the UN might be able to reduce the risk of civil war, but it's not guaranteed to work, especially as other countries such as Russia and China may be backing their own preferred candidates or groups to try to ensure they get oil contracts in Libya too. The civil wars in Afghanistan and Somalia have lasted as long as they have partly due to many different neighbouring governments and world powers backing different factions there.
So it’s far too early to be hanging up the Mission Accomplished banner in Libya – and there’s no guarantee that it will lead to democracy, peace and human rights even if NATO achieves it’s aims.
(1) = Independent 20 Aug 2011 ‘Next stop Tripoli – Libya's rebels sense victory is within reach’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/next-stop-tripoli-ndash-libyas-rebels-sense-victory-is-within-reach-2340837.html
(2) = Bloomberg 13 Apr 2011 ‘Clinton’s ‘Failed State’ Warning Hangs Over Libya as NATO Officials Meet’, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-12/clinton-s-failed-state-warning-hangs-over-libya-as-nato-can-t-stem-chaos.html
(3) = Independent 22 Aug 2011 ‘Despite the euphoria, the rebels are divided’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/despite-the-euphoria-the-rebels-are-divided-2341792.html
(4) = guardian.co.uk 22 Aug 2011 ‘Libya: rebel forces reach heart of Tripoli - live updates’,
(5) = guardian.co.uk 22 Aug 2011 ‘Libya: rebel forces reach heart of Tripoli - live updates’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2011/aug/22/libya-middle-east-unrest-live#block-66
(6) = Hague Justice Portal 22 Aug 2011 ‘ICC confirms that Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi has been arrested in Libya’, http://www.haguejusticeportal.net/eCache/DEF/12/892.TGFuZz1FTg.html
(7) = Guardian.co.uk 22 Aug 2011 ‘Libya: rebel forces reach heart of Tripoli - live updates’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2011/aug/22/libya-middle-east-unrest-live
(8) = Guardian 29 Jul 2011 ‘Abdul Fatah Younis ambush killing blamed on pro-Gaddafi forces’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/29/abdul-fatah-younis-killed-libya
(9) = Guardian.co.uk 29 Jul 2011 ‘Libyan rebels fear rift after death of Abdel Fatah Younis’,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/29/libyan-rebels-rift-death-younis ; Before the announcement of his death, armed men declaring their support for Younis appeared on the streets of Benghazi claiming they would use force to free him from NTC custody….Minutes after Jalil's statement at a chaotic late-night press conference at a hotel in Benghazi, gunfire broke out in the street outside. Members of Younis's tribe, the Obeidi, one of the largest in the east, fired machine guns and smashed windows, forcing security guards and hotel guests to duck for cover.
(10) = Guardian.co.uk 30 Jul 2011 ‘Libyan rebel soldiers killed Younis’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/30/libyan-rebel-soldiers-killed-younis ; General Abdel Fattah Younis shot dead by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces, says senior opposition minister……. Younis was killed in mysterious circumstances on Thursday. Initially, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, president of the National Transitional Council, the rebel's government, claimed the murder had been carried out by Gaddafi-linked forces…..That was starkly contradicted by oil minister Ali Tarhouni who confirmed Younis had been killed by members of the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade, a group linked to the rebels……Tarhouni told reporters Younis was being brought back to Benghazi when he was shot. A militia leader who had gone to fetch him from the front line had been arrested and confessed that his subordinates had carried out the killing.
(11) = Independent 30 Jul 2011 ‘Rebel feud puts UK's Libya policy in jeopardy’,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/rebel-feud-puts-uks-libya-policy-in-jeopardy-2328626.html ;
Increasing evidence has begun to emerge that the savage killings of General Abdel Fatah Younes and two other senior officers – who were shot and whose bodies were burnt – may have been carried out by their own side….Gen Younes, who had himself served as interior minister in the regime, had been accused of holding secret talks with Tripoli officials and leaking military secrets. The news of his arrest led to men from the Obeidi tribe gathering outside the Tibesti Hotel on Thursday evening, where the rebels were due to hold a press conference, threatening to take action to free the commander unless he was released….. Mr Jalil held that Gen Younes had merely been "summoned" for questioning and been released on his own recognisance before being killed in an attack by an "armed gang". Rebel security forces, he maintained, were still trying to find the bodies, but the TNC leader refused to answer questions on how, in that case, he could know that the men were already dead….. Meanwhile Mr Jalil's version of events was contradicted by the TNC's military spokesman, Mohammed al-Rijali, who stated that Gen Younes had been detained at the oil port of Brega and brought to Benghazi for interrogation prior to his death. A third rebel official, a senior security officer, Fadlallah Haroun, maintained that three corpses had already been found before Mr Jalil had made his announcement. He could not explain why the TNC leader had failed to mention this at the press conference.
(12) = NPR 03 Aug 2011 ‘Rebel Leader’s Death Puts Eastern Libya On Edge’,
http://feb17.info/news/rebel-leaders-death-puts-eastern-libya-on-edge/ ; At the tribal gathering, Younis’ sons — who didn’t want their names used — say that if the rebel leadership couldn’t bring their father’s killers to justice then they hoped the tribe would….“The way he was killed looks like a betrayal,” says one son, adding that no one is above suspicion….Another son says he believes the rebel council was involved.
(13) = guardian.co.uk 09 Aug 2011 ‘Libyan rebel leader sacks entire cabinet’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/09/libyan-rebel-leader-sacks-cabinet
(14) = guardian.co.uk 31 Jul 2011 ‘Younis assassination magnifies divisions among Libyan rebels’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/31/libya-younis-rebels-ramadan-analysis ; ‘News of fighting involving rival Islamist factions came as yet another worrying sign of internal division at a time when western political and military support for the rebels has reached the point of no return.’
(15) = Committee to Protect Journalists 22 Aug 2011 ‘Australian journalist attacked by assailants in Benghazi’, http://cpj.org/2011/08/australian-journalist-attacked-by-assailants-in-be.php
(16) = The National 31 Jul 2011 ‘The death of General Younis makes us stronger, Libya rebels say’, http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/the-death-of-general-younis-makes-us-stronger-libya-rebels-say
(17) = Independent 24 Mar 2011 ‘ Kim Sengupta: The resistance has foundered on its own indiscipline and farcical ineptitude’, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/kim-sengupta-the-resistance-has-foundered-on-its-own-indiscipline-and-farcical-ineptitude-2251298.html ;The rebels' operations are further undermined by an absence of command and control. On Monday two men standing within a hundred yards of each other, "Captain" Jalal Idrisi and "Major" Adil Hassi, claimed to be in charge of the fighters who were meant to be attacking Ajdabiya. A brief advance soon turned into a chaotic retreat. Major Hassi then claimed that the misjudgement in going forward had been Captain Idris's idea. But why didn't they liaise? "We haven't got communications equipment" he responded. But the Captain is standing just over there, journalists pointed out. "I don't talk to him," said Major Hassi.
(18) = Le Journal de dimanche 02 April 2011 ‘En Libye, les djihadistes montent au front’,
http://www.lejdd.fr/International/Afrique/Actualite/Al-Qaida-s-implique-en-Libye-293649/?from=headlines ; English translation at http://translate.google.co.uk/translate?js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.lejdd.fr%2FInternational%2FAfrique%2FActualite%2FAl-Qaida-s-implique-en-Libye-293649%2F%3Ffrom%3Dheadlines
(19) = See (18) above
(20) = Bloomberg 13 Apr 2011 ‘Clinton’s ‘Failed State’ Warning Hangs Over Libya as NATO Officials Meet’, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-12/clinton-s-failed-state-warning-hangs-over-libya-as-nato-can-t-stem-chaos.html; '“It looks like a very untenable situation,” Geoff Porter, an analyst at North African Risk Consulting, said in an interview from New York. “Where we are heading is a de facto partition, between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica,” the historic names for western and eastern Libya.'
(21) = Ronald Bruce St. John (2008) ‘Libya From Colony to Independence’, Oneworld Paperback/Oxford, Chapters 3 -4 (on the colonial divisions of Libya under Italy and later France and Britain - Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan)
(22) = Ronald Bruce St. John (2008) ‘Libya From Colony to Independence’, Oneworld Paperback/Oxford, pages 97-8, 105-106, 116, 141-142(on Wheelus Field air base and the US under Idris, plus Gaddafi telling US forces to leave)
(23) = BBC News 06 Mar 2011 ‘Libya unrest: SAS members 'captured near Benghazi'’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12658054
(24) = NYT 30 Mar 2011 ‘C.I.A. Agents in Libya Aid Airstrikes and Meet Rebels’,http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/31/world/africa/31intel.html
(25) = Guardian 31 Mar 2011 ‘Libya: SAS veterans helping Nato identify Gaddafi targets in Misrata’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/31/libya-sas-veterans-misrata-rebels ; Former SAS soldiers and other western employees of private security companies are helping Nato identify targets in the Libyan port city of Misrata, the scene of heavy fighting between Muammar Gaddafi's forces and rebels, well-placed sources have told the Guardian.
(26) = Al Jazeera 03 Apr 2011 ‘Libyan rebels 'receive foreign training'’,http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/04/201142172443133798.html ; US and Egyptian special forces have reportedly been providing covert training to rebel fighters in the battle for Libya, Al Jazeera has been told….An unnamed rebel source related how he had undergone training in military techniques at a "secret facility" in eastern Libya.
(27) = Bloomberg Businessweek 03 Apr 2011 ‘NATO Escalates Libya Campaign After Rebels Criticize Mission’,http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-04-06/nato-escalates-libya-campaign-after-rebels-criticize-mission.html
(28) = Washington Post 22 Aug 2011 ‘Allies guided rebel ‘pincer’ assault on Tripoli’http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/allies-guided-rebel-pincer-assault-on-tripoli/2011/08/22/gIQAeAMaWJ_story.html; British, French and Qatari Special Forces have been operating on the ground in Libya for some time and helped the rebels develop and coordinate the pincer strategy, officials said. At the same time, CIA operatives inside the country — along with intercepted communications between Libyan government officials — provided a deeper understanding of how badly Gaddafi’s command structure had crumbled, according to U.S. officials.
(29) = Independent 23 Aug 2011 ‘Rebels claim the victory – but did the Brits win it?’,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/rebels-claim-the-victory-ndash-but-did-the-brits-win-it-2342152.html