Patrick Cockburn: How Nato's blunders have prolonged Libya's suffering

World View: Air strikes will defeat Gaddafi. But unless regional partners help force his departure, he will fight to the finish – ushering in years of chaos and crisis

Share
Related Topics

Flames billow up from the hulks of eight Libyan navy vessels destroyed by Nato air attacks as they lay in ports along the Libyan coast. Their destruction shows how Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is being squeezed militarily, but also the degree to which the US, France and Britain, and not the Libyan rebels, are now the main players in the struggle for power in Libya.

Probably Gaddafi will ultimately go down because he is too weak to withstand the forces arrayed against him. Failure to end his regime would be too humiliating and politically damaging for Nato after 2,700 air strikes. But, as with the capture of Baghdad in 2003, the fall of the regime may usher in a new round of a long-running Libyan crisis that continues for years to come.

It has all developed rather differently from what the French and British appear to have imagined when they first intervened in March to save the citizens of Benghazi from Gaddafi's advancing tanks. If this was their sole aim, the air strikes were successful. The roadside from Benghazi to Ajdabiya is still littered with the carcasses of burned-out armoured vehicles. But months after William Hague was suggesting that Gaddafi was already en route for Venezuela he is still in Tripoli.

Three months after the start of the Libyan uprising Gaddafi's troops have failed to capture Misrata, but the rebels do not look capable of advancing towards Tripoli. They have broken the siege of Misrata partly because their militiamen now clutch hand radios and can call in Nato air strikes. This close air support is effective and is along the lines of the tactical air support given by the US to the Northern Alliance soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq two years later.

The Libyan government and opposition forces are both weak. The fighting forces that have been clashing on the desert road between Brega and Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, often number no more than a few hundred half-trained fighters. Gaddafi's troops, with which he tries to control this vast country, number only 10,000 to 15,000. This is not always obvious to anybody who is not an eyewitness because the foreign media on the spot is bashful about mentioning that there are sometimes more journalists than fighters at the front.

One dispiriting outcome of the Libyan uprising is that the future of Libya is decreasingly likely to be determined by Libyans. Foreign intervention is turning into an old-style imperial venture. Much the same thing happened in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan in the past few years. In Iraq, the US invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein, a ruler detested by most Iraqis, soon turned into what many Iraqis saw as a foreign occupation.

As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the weakness of France and Britain is their lack of a local partner who is as powerful and representative as they pretend. In the rebel capital Benghazi there is little sign of the leaders of the transitional national council, which is scarcely surprising, because so much of their time is spent in Paris and London. In Washington, the White House was a little more cautious last week when Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Libyan prime minister, and other council members came to bolster their credibility and hopefully get some financial support. More circumspectly, the Libyan rebel leaders were there to allay American suspicions that the Libyan opposition is not quite as cuddly as it claims and includes al-Qa'ida sympathisers waiting their chance to seize power.

The Libyan opposition may be weak but is not quite so naive or inexperienced as it sometimes appears. Its leaders are quick to play down eastern Libya's tradition of militant Islam. In the town of Al Bayda, on the long road from the Egyptian frontier to Benghazi, I saw a large notice in French addressed to any passing foreigners, denying any link with al-Qa'ida. This is largely but not entirely true. One Libyan observer in Benghazi explained: "The only people in this part of the country who have any recent military experience are those who were fighting the Americans in Afghanistan, so of course we send them to the front."

Wars often widen and deepen existing fissures in a society. The rebel transitional national council likes to play down suggestions that it is primarily a movement from Cyrenaica, the great bulge of eastern Libya where Gaddafi has always been unpopular. But he has held on to most of western Libya. Today these two halves of Libya, separated by hundreds of miles of desert, increasingly feel like separate countries.

Libyans on the ground have fewer inhibitions about discussing these differences. Outside some beach huts in Benghazi used to house refugees, I spoke to oil workers from the oil port of Brega, a town of about 4,000, who had fled when Gaddafi's forces captured it. A manager from the gas fields said: "Gaddafi's people got hold of a book with all our names because they wanted to see who came from east Libya and in their eyes would naturally be a rebel."

Of course, Gaddafi's opponents don't just come from the east. It is fair to assume that most Libyans from all parts of the country want him to go. He clings on because he rules through his family, clan, tribe and allied tribes, combined with his ebbing control of the ramshackle Libyan government and military machine. Everything within the part of Libya he still controls depends on Gaddafi personally. Once he goes there will be a political vacuum that the opposition will scarcely be able to fill.

Could the war be ended earlier by negotiation? Here, again, the problem is the weakness of the organised opposition. If they have the backing of enhanced Nato military involvement they can take power. Without it, they can't. They therefore have every incentive to demand that Gaddafi goes as a precondition for a ceasefire and negotiations. Since only Gaddafi can deliver a ceasefire and meaningful talks, this means the war will be fought to a finish. The departure of Gaddafi should be the aim of negotiations not their starting point.

One surprising aspect of the conflict so far is that there has not been a greater effort to involve Algeria and Egypt, the two most powerful states in North Africa. This would make the departure of Gaddafi easier to negotiate and would make the whole Libyan adventure look less like West European imperialism reborn. The aim of Nato intervention was supposedly to limit civilian casualties, but its leaders have blundered into a political strategy that makes a prolonged conflict and heavy civilian loss of life inevitable.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?