Kim Sengupta: It would be very convenient for the West if Gaddafi became 'collateral damage'

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The Independent Online

The targeted air strike from which Muammar Gaddafi escaped but his youngest son and three grandsons were reportedly killed came within hours of the rejection of another offer of a peace deal from the Libyan leader. No such agreement is possible, says the Western coalition and the rebel administration it has sponsored, while Colonel Gaddafi and his family stay in the country. The dictator and his immediate relations can have no part in shaping post-regime Libya, they say.

The rebels have backed down from their previous stance that Colonel Gaddafi and his coterie should be tried for human rights abuses and the theft of vast sums of public money. But he shows no inclination of going into exile and this is the biggest obstacle to any exit strategy for Nato from a conflict that is unlikely to end soon.

David Cameron's Government fundamentally miscalculated how events would unfold in this particular revolution. According to its script, Colonel Gaddafi would give up – like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt – and flee.

William Hague was assuring the world just days into the uprising that the Libyan ruler was already in the arms of his friend Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

The mantra from Nato, trotted out by Mr Cameron yesterday, is that the air attacks on the residences of the regime's leadership are compatible with UN resolution 1973 – which allowed military action to protect civilians in Libya – because "it is about preventing a loss of civilian life by targeting Gaddafi's war machine. That is obviously tanks and guns but also command and control. We do not know which command-and-control facility was being targeted in this latest attack, but there is little doubt that if Colonel Gaddafi became "collateral damage" in the process, it would have been hugely convenient for the West.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1986 US warplanes struck a compound used by Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli in retaliation for a nightclub bombing in Germany that was allegedly organised by his regime. An adopted daughter of the Libyan leader was killed in the raid.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003 and during the "shock and awe" which followed, a number of air strikes were carried out in unsuccessful attempts to kill Saddam Hussein.

And a sustained programme of "decapitation" of Taliban and al-Qa'ida commanders has been going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past few years with the use of drones and special forces, resulting in more than 2,000 dead so far in that conflict. Many of us on the ground in Libya believe that, two-and-half months after the uprising started, the rebel forces in the east are too incompetent and too averse to gunfire to " march to Tripoli".

Even after weeks of Nato bombing their writ barely extends to Ajdabiya, the next city after the opposition capital, Benghazi. If the bombing did stop, Benghazi would almost certainly fall to the regime. Similarly, the revolutionaries in the besieged port of Misrata, albeit far tougher and braver than the ones in Benghazi, would continue to need sustained Western support to stop their city from being overrun.

So what happens if Colonel Gaddafi does not die and continues to refuse to go into exile? Air strikes alone will not win this war. It would not be politically acceptable in the West, we are told, to send in ground troops. Mr Cameron says he is considering giving modern weaponry to the rebels. But seeing how they misuse the old weapons they already have, giving them a more lethal arsenal would only pose a greater danger to themselves and any hapless civilians in the vicinity when they try to use them.

But training, the one thing that the rebel forces need the most, is not being offered by the UK and its Western allies. Government lawyers in London maintain that to do so would be illegal under the terms of the UN mandate. Thus we have an interpretation of Resolution 1973 which appears to accept the assassination of a foreign leader in the guise of taking out command and control.

But at the same time, it does not allow training for those who have risen up against Colonel Gaddafi's oppression on how to defend themselves against attacks by his forces.