No-fly zones, Libya and the Arab Revolt

March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | 2 Comments
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The United Nations Security Council–with the abstention of Russia, China, Germany, India, and Brazil–has done what military analysts have said would be folly: it has voted to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ on Libya and ‘take all necessary action’ short of ‘a foreign occupation force of any form’ to force Colonel Muammar Gaddafi out of power. ‘All necessary action’ could involve a ‘no-drive zone’ to cripple the Libyan regime’s armored vehicles from attacking Benghazi, Misrata, Tobruk, and other remaining rebel strongholds as well as sending in military advisers.

Libya no fly zone

Advocates of the resolution have evoked humanitarian reasons–chiefly the regime’s brutal counter-assault using its air force and paramilitary forces to roll back the rebels–for intervention. This is buttressed by the belief that Libya is not even a third-rate power and its defenses can easily be destroyed. And the rebels are clothed in the accoutrements of democracy though the only thing that unifies the rebels is their opposition to the Gaddafi regime and it is not clear what a post-Gaddafi Libya will look like or even whether it will remain unified.

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If humanitarian reasons are the chief justification, then it is clear that there is a double standard that is applied. Much has been made of the Arab League’s call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, but there has been no report of the fact that it was opposed by both Syria and Algeria. The states in support of the resolution–Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman, and Yemen–are hardly paragons of democracy. The governments of Yemen and Bahrain have brutally crushed demonstrations in their own countries; and Saudi Arabia and four other Gulf Cooperation Council states have sent more than 2000 troops to Bahrain to help the regime stay in power! Saudi Arabia has moreover prohibited protests in its eastern province, declaring such protests “illegal and un-Islamic”–and Saudi Arabia has more than 8,000 political prisoners!

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More importantly, there has been virtually no report in mainstream media in the West, that the African Union has condemned attempts to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. The AU’s 15-member peace and security council resolved, to “reaffirm[s] its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign intervention in Libya.” It formed an ad hoc committee composed of South Africa, Mauritania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to engage in dialogue with all parties in Libya for a speedy resolution of the crisis.

There is no certainty that the military operation will be a smooth and easy one. Less than a month ago, US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had told cadets at West Point that any secretary of defense who advises a president to intervene militarily in Asia or Africa ought to have his head examined. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ let alone all the other ‘necessary actions’ voted on by the Security Council will be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up”–and of course, the major burden will be on the United States which is already engaged in two wars. British Prime Minister David Cameron may have led the charge for a ‘no-fly zone’ but Britain does not even have an aircraft carrier! General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in Kosovo, has argued that intervention in Libya does not meet critical tests: it is not in US national interest, the purpose of intervention is not clear, political prospects were Gaddafi to be ousted is unclear.

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A ‘no-fly zone’ moreover, might have had a chance of success ten days ago when the Gaddafi regime launched its counter-assault. Now with the rebels in full retreat, and the regime ascendant–with the regime poised to assault the rebel capital of Benghazi–it is not clear whether a no-fly zone alone will suffice. A ‘no-drive zone’ is an even more ‘complex operation’ and increases the odds of British, American, and French casualties–Germany has refused to contribute troops to a NATO operation against Libya and Turkey is unlikely to participate as well. Colonel Gaddafi has promised to take the battle into the Mediterranean and that increases the prospects of Western civilian casualties and an escalation of the war. It will be a war Gaddafi may well lose, but it is not likely that NATO can extricate itself easily–and remember there is no international sanction for a foreign occupation force ‘of any form’ in the Security Council resolution!

If intervention is to promote democracy, George Monbiot notes that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Libya 158th of 167 countries on its Democracy Index while Saudi Arabia is ranked 160th–and in Libya “women are not officially treated as lepers were in medieval Europe.”

Here, the double standard is all too obvious. Saudi Arabia in the only remaining “swing producer”–the only oil-producing nation with enough excess capacity to raise production if supplies fall short of demand. But US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks suspect that Saudi claims of reserves are exaggerated by almost 40 percent.

The Arab Revolt is not really about democracy–elections have not delivered results in the past, and when election results have angered the United States as in the Hamas triumph in Palestine, the US has condemned the results and applauded Israel’s punitive punishment of Gaza. The protests are about a wholesale change–not merely a change of rulers–because where there is a legal opposition, the opposition is often equally discredited.

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Key to the revolt has been an explosion of information–not only through al-Jazeera, but also through the Internet, travel, and TV–and the enormous growth of people aged below 25 to levels unmatched almost anywhere else. The youth exposed to a wider range of information and experiences have greater aspirations–and now that two of the tyrants have been ousted, the sense of empowerment is raised as Brian Whittaker notes.

It is this sense of empowerment that will take a beating if Western forces occupy Libya for a long while. It will signal pro-Western governments in the Persian Gulf–Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich sheikdoms that they can count on mealy-mouthed appeals for restraint from Washington, London, and Paris as they crush their domestic oppositions. Ironically, this may play well in Iran’s favor. The Islamic Republic is very careful not to portray the conflicts in a sectarian light: if it can portray it as an attack on Muslims, and when Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of Holy Places, sends its troops to slaughter other Muslims, Iran raised the issue not with the Arab League but with the Organization of Islamic Conference. The Iranian Foreign Minister asked the Conference: “How can one accept that a government has proceeded to invite foreign military forces for the crackdown of its own citizens?” Tehran will gain even more credibility with the Arab forces when American, British, and French forces intervene in Libya.

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Gaddafi’s Counter-revolution

March 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the revolt in Libya initially followed the script in Tunisia and Egypt, with protestors calling for democracy and the ouster of an autocrat who had ruled over them for long, it was quickly evident that the Libyan story would have its own murderous twists. Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi had after all supported to the end his fellow autocrats–Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak–and urged them to retain their presidencies ‘life.’ And as he had centralized all power and deliberately kept the army weak, there were no generals who could send him packing. It was clear that he was not going to go timidly.

After an initial period of paralysis, when the rebels quickly consolidated their control over the oil-rich eastern parts of the country and began advancing to towards the regime strongholds of Sirte and Tripoli, Gaddafi launched a murderous counter-assault with tanks, heavy artillery, and air planes. The paramilitary forces commanded by his sons were far better equipped that the rebels and the military deserters who had joined them and have been steadily rolling back the rebels. Stopping the rebel advance in Bin Jawad, a small town between the oil refinery port of Ras Lanuf and Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. The regime’s forces have now captured the ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega and are advancing towards the rebel headquarters of Benghazi, though Misurata in central Libya still appears to be holding out despite assaults by the pro-Gaddafi forces.

After having swiftly called for Gaddafi to go, the United States and West European leaders are now in a quandary. In the first instance, it is not clear whether President Barack Obama gets it at all: on March 4, he told Florida Democrats in Miami:

“All the forces that we’re seeing at work in Egypt are forces that naturally should be aligned with us, should be aligned with Israel — if we make good decisions now and we understand sort of the sweep of history.”

The fact that demonstrators across North Africa and the Persian Gulf are not chanting anti-Israel or anti-US slogans merely shows that the protests are rooted in domestic conditions, not that they are pro-Israel. Indeed, the demand for accountable governments is a demand for governments not to be subserviently enforcing Israeli policies as Mubarak had done!

When the British Prime Minister David Cameron initially called for a no-fly zone, and other Western leaders called on Gaddafi to go, it was expected to increase pressure on him to follow Ben Ali and Mubarak and leave quietly. And as the Libyan rebels were rolling from the east towards Tripoli everyone was keen to ensure that this was a Libyan revolution, one without foreign assistance. But the regime’s counter-assualt has changed all this. Now the rebels, the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council, recognized by France as the legitimate government of the country is calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone, a call endorsed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States. On March 11, the European Union also said it would keep military action as an option “provided there is demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region.”

If the purpose of intervention–even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’–is to protect civilians, it reeks of double-standards. Not only have the United States, European leaders, or the Arab League not reacted in a similar manner to the killing of protesters elsewhere–in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories–but members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League are themselves guilty of killing protesters. At the time of writing, Yemeni forces are killing protesters in Sana’a and wounding hundreds elsewhere in the country.

While the imposition of a no-fly zone–an act of war and would imply at the very least the bombing of Libyan anti-aircraft defenses–may prevent Gaddafi from launching air raids, Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes it will not severely dampen the regime’s counter-assault. It will do nothing to its heavy artillery and its trained paramilitary forces.


Arming the rebels poses problems of another order. The Libyan National Council is headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Justice Minister in the Gaddafi regime but the names and identities of many of its members have not been revealed. They appear to be united only in their opposition to Gaddafi and include the entire spectrum from Islamic fundamentalists to pro-democracy activists and workers and the relative balance between these factions is anything but clear. What is clear is that the rebels have little or no military training and hence it is anything but certain that they can withstand the regime’s counter-assault even if they were provided with arms.

It is also clear that Gaddafi has a powerful constituency, bought off with his oil revenues and tribal loyalties. This inevitably implies that effective intervention on the terms being discussed by the European Union, NATO, and the United States would involve putting US and European forces on the ground. it is not clear how the US can sustain a third war in difficult financial circumstances and the intervention may strengthen Gaddafi’s hands if the Libyans see “French and English speaking troops conducting Iraq War style raids into their homes” as Vijay Prashad has rightly suggested. And any intervention coming on the heels of the US House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims will be doubly egregious.

Indeed, the autocrats represented in the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council may well have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to divert attention from the domestic problems fueling the protests back to anti-imperialism!

What is additionally noteworthy is that the military government in Egypt has not taken a strong stand against the assault launched by the Libyan regime. Its military, provisioned by the US, its infinitely better equipped than the Libyan forces and yet does nothing to intervene. Rather than supporting the Libyan protestors it does not even help Egyptian workers in Libya get back home!

If Gaddafi is able to capture Benghazi, then the tide of Arab rebellions would have been turned especially as the Saudis have allocated $37 billion to buy the loyalty of its people and the Gulf Cooperation Council is channeling $20 billion to Bahrain and Oman to similarly buy off their oppositions.

Alternatively, we could see an effective partitioning of Libya into a rebel dominated eastern wing and a Gaddafi controlled west. If this happens the control of oil, mainly located in the east and the very sparsely populated South would be crucial and the stalemate could be prolonged.

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