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The international operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya “has been successful,” top US military commander Michael Mullen said March 20. “They are no longer marching on Benghazi,” Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC News. Meanwhile, the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, protested the air-strikes against Libya, saying he would call a league meeting to reconsider Arab approval of the Western military intervention. “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone,” he said. “And what we want is the protection of civilians and not the shelling of more civilians.” (Middle East Online, WP, March 20)
As the West intervenes in Libya, protest and repression continue to escalate throughout the Arab world. On March 20, lawmakers in Bahrain called on King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to declare a state of emergency and invoke martial law after 5,000 protesters marched to demand an end to the monarchy. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a state of emergency throughout the country March 18—one day after a massacre of protesters in the capital, Sanaa. The state of emergency will last 30 days and gives security forces greater powers to maintain order. Saleh stated that a “committee of neutral bodies” will investigate the massacre and called those killed during the protest “martyrs of democracy.” (Jurist, March 19)
Bahrain’s two main hospitals remain surrounded by masked soldiers despite demands from America that the kingdom must ease its violent crackdown on demonstrators and the medical workers treating them.
Soldiers also continue to patrol all main roads in the capital Manama and have cordoned off access to the former hub of the protest movement, Pearl Roundabout, which was destroyed under government orders on Friday, denying the restive demonstrators a focal point.
The tiny Gulf state has the feel of a nation under siege as it approaches a second week of martial law imposed for three months by its besieged rulers. In addition to the troop presence, neighbourhoods remain largely empty; large, glitzy shopping malls have been virtually abandoned and helicopters regularly buzz over the debris-strewn scenes of recent street clashes.
United Nations allies France, Britain and the United States took the lead Saturday evening in imposing a no-fly zone on Libya. French and British fighter jets flew dangerous missions, given that the anti-aircraft batteries of the pro-Qaddafi forces had not yet been knocked out. Then the United States launched a barrage of 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles, targeting Qaddafi’s anti-aircraft installations. Apparently this role of taking out Qaddafi’s air defenses is the primary one envisaged for the US, after which it will fade into the background and allow other UN allies to take the lead. In Paris, the Qatari foreign minister announced that Qatari jets would join the mission, but did not say when.
In international law,there are few constraints on the UN Security Council, and it certainly was within its rights to pass the no-fly resolution and to lobby for it to bear fruit. In some ways, the stated mission, of protecting civilians in Libya, resembles the Genocide convention. It wasn’t invoked, but it could have been. This protection mission also implicitly authorizes the UN alliance to go beyond establishing a no fly zone to other sorts of military action
Reuters Arabic reports that in rebel-held Misrata, which is besieged by pro-Qaddafi forces, Western fighter-jets on Saturday targeted a nearby airbase used by pro-Qaddafi forces. Two eyewitnesses in the city told the wire service that Qaddafi’s forces had fallen back from the city after the airstrike. They denied that the Western bombardment had aimed at civilian areas or fuel storage facilities.
One Abdel Basit, who resides in Misrata, told Reuters by telephone that “international forces attacked Qaddafi’s brigades in the Air Force Academy, but some of the forces fled a little before the assault.”
The air base lies 7 km from Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, which is a major rebel stronghold. Another resident, Sami, said that he heard the sound of a powerful explosion coming from the airbase. He said, “Qaddafi’s forces that had surrounded the city started to move, but I do not know to where.” Inhabitants of the city are on their third day without water and many have no electricity. Lack of drugs and anesthesia makes it difficult to operate on the wounded. Qaddafi’s forces have been intensively bombarding Misrata since the no-fly resolution was passed on Friday.
France sent five aircraft right away to establish a ‘no-drive’ zone south of the rebel center of Benghazi which had been besieged on Friday and Saturday. French fighter jets destroyed tanks and armored vehicles belonging to pro-Qaddafi forces, which were being used to advance on Benghazi.
If Qaddafi’s forces can take Benghazi before the UN allies can assemble their air forces, he would be buying himself a lot of time and it is not impossible that he could thwart the intent of the no-fly zone altogether. The French military has clearly figured all this out, which is why its pilots are taking the risk of flying missions at a time and in places where there could still be anti-aircraft defenses.
Arwa Damon of CNN (@arwaCNN) tweeted around 5 am Sunday Libyan time that she could still hear jets overhead: “…hearing fighter jets over #benghazi right now. sounds like #gadhafi forces will not be able to attack as easily as before.”
Although the Qaddafi regime alleged that the strikes killed civilians and damaged a hospital, the precise numbers in such claims should be treated cautiously in the absence of good proof. Some of the ‘news’ coming out of Tripoli, just as that coming out of Western capitals, will be part of an information psycho-war. Qaddafi has already made it clear that he will try to depict the UNO action against him as a neo-colonial campaign, or new ‘crusade.’
Ironically, actual anti-colonial movements such as Algeria’s FLN or National Liberation Front back in the late 1950s and early 1960s often attempted to elicit the intervention of the United Nations. In that regard, the elation of the Benghazi crowds at the UNSC resolution authorizing a no-fly zone stands in a long tradition of seeking succor from oppression from the international community.
Moreover, the impetus for the no-fly zone came from the Arab League, full of what used to be called Third World states. It was tabled at the UNSC by Lebanon and supported by Bosnia, Nigeria, Colombia and South Africa. As for ‘crusades,’ it is not an accusation that can plausibly be launched against the Arab League, full of Muslim states, or, indeed, against Bosnia or the current Lebanese government or religiously plural Nigeria.
Following opening French air-strikes near Benghazi, US and British warships launched more than 110 Tomahawk missiles at defense facilities along the Libyan coast. The strikes targeted specifically surface-to-air missile sites and radar detectors that are part of the Libyan military’s air defense infrastructure, said Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command. The campaign, code-named Operation Odyssey Dawn is being co-ordinated at a US headquarters in Germany. In a brief statement, Qaddafi pledged resistance to the “colonial crusader” attacks. (LAT, BBC News, March 19)
France has launched military strikes on Libyan tanks advancing on rebel-held Benghazi, Paris announced March 19. After an international meeting on the situation in Libya at Elysee Palace, President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “At unity with our partners our air forces will counteract any attacks from Col. Qaddafi planes on the residents of Benghazi. Other French aircraft are ready to countervail against armored vehicles which may threaten civilians.” The French air-strikes on Qaddafi’s forces came just as Qaddafi’s planes carried out their first air-strikes on Benghazi, sending thousands of residents fleeing the city. The highway to al-Bayda, the next town to the east, is reported to be clogged with cars packed with families fleeing Benghazi. (APA, BBC News, AP, AGI, March 19)
Aljazeera English is reporting that French fighter jets have destroyed 4 tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi, the center of the provisional government opposing dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The tanks were involved in a concerted attack on Benghazi launched by Qaddafi’s military Friday and Saturday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy surprised observers by announcing that French fighter jets were patrolling Libya’s skies already. The deployment was expected later on Saturday or on Sunday, in the wake of the meeting of a 22-nation spontaneous alliance formed to meet the UN Security Council’s mandate to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi loyalists’ military attacks on them.
Aljazeera Arabic interviewed Brigadier Gen. Safwat El Zayat (rtd.), an Egyptian military analyst and supporter of the Egyptian revolution, on the military situation in Libya. He was asked about the report that French fighter jets had taken out 4 Libyan tanks near Benghazi. Zayat said that pro-Qaddafi armor had moved up from Ajdabiya toward Benghazi in two columns, with the intent of breaching the rebel stronghold’s defenses and occupying the city center. The 32nd Special Forces Brigade, supported by tanks and led by Qaddafi’s son, Khamis, attacked on Friday and Saturday from the southwest. Another brigade, supported by tanks and heavy artillery and led by another Qaddafi son, Saadi, attacked from the southeast.
The French were attempting to deprive these elite brigades of their armored support and so level the playing ground for the rebel defenders of Benghazi. Given this air intervention, Gen. Zayat said, the strategy pursued by Qaddafi’s military in the past week could turn out to have been an enormous error. The pro-Qaddafi forces are stretched out over hundreds of miles, far from their supply lines, and are vulnerable to aerial bombardment because they are exposed in the desert. He said that French Mirage jets could fire infrared-seeking air-to-ground missiles that would detect Libyan armor because its temperature signature differed from its desert surroundings, and so could zero in on it.
Zayat expects that the struggle could well evolve rapidly from a no-fly zone enforcement to a push to deprive Qaddafi of his armored assets on the ground. He expected pro-Qaddafi forces to beat a retreat to Sirt now that the environment is turning negative for them in the east, but points out that they are hundreds of miles away and won’t be able to retreat quickly, remaining exposed along the way. The general points out that the mission is stated as protecting civilians from military attack, and that it could become a wideranging one. What, he asked, is the difference between protecting citizens in Benghazi from the 32nd Brigade or protecting those in Misrata closer to the capital? And then how is Zintan in the western desert different from Misrata?
Given the good performance turned in by the rebels two weeks ago before Qaddafi’s sons and officers decided to riposte with armor and air strikes and to punish civilian quarters for their support of the uprising, it seems likely that if Qaddafi is deprived by the UN-backed coalition of his advantage in planes and tanks, the rebels will again advance west. Once the rebels have the momentum on their side I can only imagine that the rest of the Libyan officer corps will throw the Qaddafis under the bus and switch sides.
The change became possible, though, only after Mrs. Clinton joined Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had been pressing the case for military action, according to senior administration officials speaking only on condition of anonymity. Ms. Power is a former journalist and human rights advocate; Ms. Rice was an Africa adviser to President Clinton when the United States failed to intervene to stop the Rwanda genocide, which Mr. Clinton has called his biggest regret.
In joining Ms. Rice and Ms. Power, Mrs. Clinton made an unusual break with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who, along with the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and the counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, had urged caution.
The United Nations no-fly zone over Libya is risky but it can have a good outcome under certain conditions. Above all, it should look more like Kosovo than like Iraq.
[I should clarify that I think US participation in this effort should have been conditional on a vote of the US Congress. However, likely the Europeans and Arab League would have pursued the policy even in the absence of US involvement. In any case, my question as an analyst is where things might go from here.]
1. It should not be open-ended, but rather should have an expiration date. The no-fly zone is a response to a specific humanitarian crisis (the Qaddafi regime was firing tank and artillery shells at urban crowds protesting it). That crisis must not draw the UN allies into a years-long quagmire. (Such a situation developed in Iraq in the 1990s and contributed to the ultimate destruction of that country).
2. It should be a no-fly zone, not a war on the Qaddafi regime. Qaddafi tank columns should be interdicted from moving on Benghazi or Tobruk. But tanks just sitting around in Tripoli should not be targeted.
3. Once the no-fly zone is in place and Benghazi and points east are protected from reprisals, brokers should intervene to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
4. Officers who committed war crimes, as with ordering live fire on civilian crowds, must be prosecuted, but not everyone in the Libyan military should be tarred with that brush.
5. Amnesty might be offered to pro-Qaddafi officers and politicians provided they break with the dictator and send him into exile, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia. It is desirable that there be some continuity between the old regime and the new one, and that tribal factionalism and feuds and reprisals be avoided.
6. Countries opposed to or lukewarm toward the no-fly zone, but which are themselves democracies, such as India, Algeria and Russia, could be enlisted to meet with the officer corps in Tripoli and impress on them the need for a transition to parliamentary elections.
It is not impossible that there will be an outcome the world can live with, as happened in Bosnia and in Kosovo. In both places, local forces took the lead on the ground. Kosovo as a state originated in an externally enforced no fly zone.
That the world community has intervened in Libya but not in say, Yemen and Bahrain, has raised cries of hypocrisy. These charges are largely deserved. It is worth noting, however, that nowhere else in the Arab world where there have been widespread protests has the regime consistently responded with such massive brutality as in Libya. Yemen, with the sniper massacre of crowds on Friday, is moving in that direction, but Qaddafi has likely killed thousands since February 17, not just dozens.
From February 17, a peaceful protest movement broke out throughout Libya. Civilian crowds gathered without violence downtown, in Benghazi, Tobruk, Dirna, Zawiya, Zuara and even in the outskirts of Tripoli as in the working class town of Tajoura. City notables and military men in the east of the country formed a provisional government. Many diplomats declared for the provisional government, as did many officers and even cabinet members.
The Qaddafi regime responded with brutal violence to these non-violent protests. Early on, live fire was used against protesters in Tripoli itself. Last week, convoys of tanks rolled into Zawiya, supported by heavy artillery, firing on civilian crowds and on civilian apartment buildings. The tanks occupied the city center, and there are reports of a mass grave of the protesters. They were just protesters. They were easily defeated because they did not know, and most of them still do not know, how to handle a weapon. There were large numbers of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the rebel ranks.
A reporter on the scene in Zawiya spoke of ‘large numbers of deaths’ and a ‘massacre.’
The Zawiya scenario was repeated, in Zuara to its west, and in Misrata to its east (Misrata, a city of 600,000 and Libya’s third largest, appears to have fallen to Qaddafi this weekend, with his tanks occupying the city center in a dreary repetition of the death and destruction at Zawiya earlier).
Libya began as a protest. Some of the protesters (apparently only a few thousand) were turned into armed rebels as they sought to defend themselves. Qaddafi responded to the protest movement by firing tank and artillery shells at the protesters and at infrastructure in the rebel cities. Many are without water and electricity, creating a humanitarian crisis.
NATO military forces flying in response to the UNSC resolution must seek to replicate the successes in Kosovo and not the failures in Iraq.