Libya – Observations as the uprising unfolded

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One can not help being over awed by the astonishing courage displayed by the Libyan democracy movement in the teeth of one of the most brutal regimes on the planet.

With only knives and sticks, Libyans took on tanks and anti-aircraft gun fire and won battles in city after city, town after town. They now run the areas they control through committees that organise everything from power stations, transport, cleaning, medicine to food distribution.

At the time of writing (1st March 2011), Gaddafi’s area of control has been reduced to Tripoli, his home town Sirit and a handful of other towns. Pro Gaddafi supporters have resorted to all manner of atrocities, including shooting protesters with anti-aircraft weapons, to cling onto power.

Libya Update 28th March: Reports today are saying that the revolutionaries are on their way to Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. The Western forces seem to have changed their military tactic of pinning down Gaddafi’s forces and maintaining a stalemate between the two sides to actively helping the revolutionaries. At this stage it can’t be ruled out that the tactic is to pressure Gaddafi into agreeing to a real ceasefire and/or to re-position the front line ahead of key oil assets. There is also still some debate within the Coalition as to how far to help the rebel forces.

When Harold Macmillan was asked what his greatest challenge as a statesman was, he replied “Events, my dear boy, events”. That caveat must always apply when attempting to discern the direction of events, especially through the fog of war or revolution.

The coalition, does seem to have changed its position from one of maintaining a stalemate, as I asserted a few days ago, to contemplating taking sides in regime change. I stated on March 21st that: “There is talk of regime change, though the West would regard the fall of Gaddafi as a bonus, at the moment that is not the main objective of these initial attacks.”

Regime change was always an option, but why has it apparently moved up the agenda? The answer may lie in assessing the nature of the forces that the West, at the moment a Coalition but soon through NATO, have allied themselves with:

  • The revolutionary fighters appear poorly equipped and lead. Their total numbers from media images do not seem great. A BBC reporter, (24/03/02011 GMT programme), quoting a TNC source put the numbers at around 17,000. This doesn’t seem high for a region with a population, predominately young, of around one million.
  • There seems to be very little input from the professional troops that defected. There is little evidence that that equipment that would have been in their possession has been turned over. It could be that the fighters were too untrained to take advantage of more advanced equipment. Nevertheless, it seems unclear how this rather ragtag collection will be able to overcome forces based in Tripoli, assuming they make it that far. As an aside, there is some reason to believe that the composition of the rebel force has undergone some change over the past few weeks. If so then the present rebel make-up is a somewhat unknown quantity.
  • Spontaneous uprisings have ended, the bombing of Gaddafi’s forces doesn’t appear to have had the effect of inspiring any fresh ones. The Libyan population, while probably overwhelmingly support the anti-Gaddafi forces and would celebrate the fall of Gaddafi, seem to have fallen back to the role of passive by-standers. A glimpse of this can be seen in an article by Yahoo News on the problem of taking Gaddafi’s hometown.
  • At the beginning of the uprisings, the leadership was a range of the young, unemployed workers, professional workers such as lawyers. The composition of the body that has claimed leadership of the uprising, the Transitional National Council, is a poor reflection of those that started and lead the uprisings. It is heavily influenced by those who have defected from the Gaddafi regime, they have also brought their internecine method of politics with them. These elements have managed to gain control of key positions on the executive body of the council.

There is very little in this to alarm the West and their allies. If the West has shifted emphasis to assisting in the overthrow of Gaddafi, then they must judge that the revolutionaries, or more precisely their leaders, are safe to do business with. In other words, regardless of the fighters on the ground, there is no revolutionary intend on the part of the leadership beyond rhetoric.

This is a reasonable conclusion on the part of the West. The ex-Gaddafi ministers on the TNC agree with the West on policies such as privatisation, they are ideologically very close.

The uprising unfortunately appears to be degenerating into little more than a struggle between factions, Gaddafi’s on one side, and the ex-Gaddafi ministers on the other.

If Gaddafi does fall, very few will shed a tear. This will be just the closing of this chapter in the Libya story. Politicians and commentators are now asking, what next? For policy makers, one thing is certain, to paraphrase Macmillan: ‘events dear boy’, they can present new opportunities or ruin the best of plans.

Libya Update 25th March: There is every indication that a period of stalemate may suite the agendas of Gaddafi, the West, (along with the orbiting entity that is the Arab League), and the Transitional National Council. For the West, a stalemate is consistent with the aim of containing Gaddafi. For those pundits still wondering, barring inconvenient events, this containment policy is the ‘end game’. In the case of the Transitional National Council, they have accepted that they will lose Misurata and will be content to consolidate their position in the East. And Gaddafi? From his position of near defeat a few weeks ago, a stalemate is not a result he’ll be too unhappy with.

Libya Update 21st March

Celebrations greeted the first Western bombs dropped on Gaddafi’s forces in the enforcement of the UN No Fly Zone. Perhaps less appreciated was that with the dropping of the first foreign bombs on Libya, the fate of the revolution was no longer in the hands of its people.

The leaders of the Western powers have taken up the cry of ‘we must protect the civilians’. These same leaders limited their response to the brutal crack down of the Bahrain protesters with calls for restraint. Their initial reaction to the uprising in Egypt was to plead for stability and order and raise the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Tunisia? An offer from the France’s Foreign Minister, Alliot-Marie, to send riot police to help the interior ministry troops.

Ultimately one has to be judged by actions rather than on words. From the beginning of the uprisings there has been precious little from the West to show that they are a friend of ordinary Arab people. Their behaviour has been an exercise in cynical self interest. In this context, it’s especially sorrowful to witness the Transitional National Council and some Libyan exile groups hanging their strategy on the coat tails of Western strategic interests.

The West, through the UN, will be happy limiting themselves to reducing Gaddafi’s military capability. There are a number of factors that will complicate and restrain the military action. There is a lack of appetite of among the American public and the public of other western nations for intervention. The unity amongst the Arab League is fragile at best and has already been exposed with the comments of Amr Moussa over the weekend that the West had gone further in its military action than it should have. To this, the caveat should be added that accidents can happen, it can’t be ruled out entirely that the West becomes more militarily entangled than it would of originally wished.

What of Gaddafi?

The primary objective of the West is to contain Gaddafi, at least prevent him achieving a complete victory over the uprising. They do not want an emboldened rogue oil state on the border of Europe. There is talk of regime change, though the West would regard the fall of Gaddafi as a bonus, at the moment that is not the main objective of these initial attacks.

It is worth pointing out that with the death of Gaddafi, the machine of repression would still be in place. Gaddafi would merely be replaced by someone prepared to be more amenable towards the West.

From a position just a few weeks ago where he was facing defeat, Gaddafi will not be too unhappy with his current position. His priority will be to grab back as much territory from the revolutionaries and consolidate his gains. Gaddafi will judge that he can wait out the West, choking off the remaining cities into isolated enclaves.

What are the likely outcomes for this phase of the uprising?

When the protests failed to take off in Tripoli, the uprising took on a more military character as Gaddafi fought back. In-spite of defections of sections of the army bringing their equipment with them, very little of this seemed to have been used. Gaddafi got as far as the gates of Benghazi and still this major resource was not deployed. The revolutionaries were left to fight it out using old equipment. Their inexperience even lead these fighters to the tragic mistake of shooting down one of their own planes.

This raises serious questions as to the role of the the military commanders who defected and some of the leaders on the Transitional National Council. I’ll examine that issue in greater detail in a future article. It’s doubtful whether the leadership that has assumed control of the uprising is capable of carrying it through to success. In calling for military intervention from the West, the leadership has handed the initiative to Western powers and has shown that it is not prepared to lead the uprising. Perhaps the re-invigoration of the TNC with genuine representatives of the youth, workers and soldiers should be argued for.

Although it has suffered a setback, it is too early to judge that the uprising is in danger of defeat. Revolutions by their very nature are not easy to predict and are prone to sudden twists and turns.

Will other revolutions be affected?

Libya, despite grabbing the headlines is a relatively minor player in the Arab uprisings. Although the same issues of jobs, repression and lack of basic freedoms set the protests in motion at more or less the same time, they each now have a life of their own. Tunisia and Egypt are experiencing a pause in their revolutions, Yemen, Bahrain and now Syria have started the road to revolution, each one with strong enough momentum to continue their own life.

Although Gaddafi’s regime may survive ‘part one’ of the Libyan uprising, it will survive in a very much weakened state. Egypt is still the most important country for the Arab revolution and along with Tunisia, borders Libya. A fresh upsurge in revolutionary activity in either country would have an impact on Libya and could be the trigger for renewed protests. With a leadership worthy of them, the Libyan people would have every chance of overthrowing one of the most brutal regimes to grace the planet for the last forty years.

Libya Update 19th March

On the passing of the UN resolution it was to be expected that Gaddafi would use the time required to set up a No Fly Zone to grab and consolidate as much territory as possible. He would then try to isolate the remaining strongholds and strangle them into submission.

One knew that the revolutionaries would be facing a tough period as Gaddafi threw all his military power at them. However, with the possible exception of Misurata, everyone was fairly confident that the bulk of revolutionary territory would remain in the hands of the revolution. There were assurances that Gaddafi would be unlikely to try a ground assault on Benghazi because it would over stretch his forces.

Imagine my disbelief at last nights news that Gaddafi’s forces had launched ground attacks on Benghazi! How could such a large, heavily equipped, force move through the heart of revolutionary territory unobserved to within striking distance of Benghazi? Several hours later it was confirmed that unfortunately, the news was true. There may be good reasons behind last night’s events, I’m not a military expert and the post mortems can wait for another time. The pressing concern is what is the best way to defend the revolution.

Many have responded to the attack on Benghazi with calls to the UN for air strikes. When Gaddafi forces are intermingled with civilians in urban areas this tactic is useless. The continuing calls for air strikes in those circumstances can only be viewed as futile.

Others have suggested that as Gaddafi’s troops do poorly in face to face combat, urban areas are ideal for for the revolutionaries to fight in. This may be so. There may be a case for that tactic for tiny coastal towns like Ras Lanuf. But to use that tactic in a large built up city like Benghazi? Surely a recipe for large numbers of civilian casualties? It could also be added, what use then of Western air strikes?

Some sections of the supporters of the Libyan uprising have made persistent calls for help from the West. I think it is now time to be more robust in answering these calls. The West will not save the revolution! It does not want to save the revolution! It is not in the West’s interest to save the revolution! With the events of today, the policy of the West will be governed by the perspective of controlling and containing a rogue oil state. These calls for western help only foster dangerous illusions and detract from the fact that only the Libyan people can defend and carry the revolution through.

The enthusiasm, bravery and tenacity of the revolutionaries also needs to go hand in hand with good tactics and strategy. There are reports that that some defected soldiers are still held back in their barracks. If this is the case then the Transitional National Council must call over the heads of those Generals for their troops to join the revolution. The revolutionary youth should be sent to make direct appeals all soldiers not fighting with the anti-Gaddafi forces to bring their equipment and join them.

Concerns were raised that the cities in the west of Libya were left to run themselves isolated from the help of neighbouring towns and cities. This must not be allowed to happen in the East, Gaddafi will pick off each town one by one as he has done in the West.

A call should also be made for Egypt and Tunisia to unconditionally send military supplies and aid to the Transitional National Council, all willing revolutionary youth from those countries must be given free access to join the Libyan revolutionaries.

The fate of the uprising appears to be in the balance. The hope that the UN or the West will ride to the rescue is foolish one. Only the Libyan people can save the revolution and with a leadership worthy of them only the Libyan people can guarantee its victory.

Libya Update 17th March

For the last twenty four hours news reports of Libya carry the same theme of the imminent defeat of the revolutionaries and massacres of civilians in their thousands.

Pronouncements from Saif Gaddafi that the uprising will be over by the end of the week are repeated without analysis or criticism. Three things are becoming clear though:

  • Saif Gaddafi is engaged in a psychological war against the revolutionaries and their supporters. This part of the battle has assumed huge importance for the regime and is making an impact in the West. Some politicians, especially Neo conservatives, are also using this propaganda to persue their own agenda
  • The Libyan regime is engaged in subtle goading of the West. A military attack would be a tonic for the Gaddafis, it would galvanise their demoralised support and bring the indecisive back into their fold. Saif in particular understands that that total victory for either side in the uprising would be problematic for the West and is playing on those fears.
  • When a sober assessment is conducted, one sees that the military situation on the ground does not bear any relation to that claimed by the Gaddafis or the media. The battle in the East has been confined within the same strip of land for days. It also has to be borne in mind that superior weapons are all well and good but it needs boots on the ground to hold territory and the regime does not seem to have the numbers needed.

Commentators in the West risk being seduced by the psychological war waged by the Gaddafi regime and losing perspective. Their calls for No Fly Zones and other forms of military intervention could result in the opposite of their good intentions and play into Col Gaddafi’s hands.

Libya Update 16th March

Frustration has been expressed from many supporters of the Libyan uprising at the apparent bias of media reporting towards Libyan State TV.

Gaddafi is handling the Western Media quite cleverly. The regime sets the week’s agenda on a Sunday, when news-desks have less staff, with a big military push followed by announcements of routing the revolutionaries. Scenes of celebrating Gaddafi supporters are staged for global broadcast.

Media management has been made easier by cutting off other mainstream sources by driving out journalists from sensitive areas. Western news organisations have been reduced to taking their cue from Libyan TV and sketchy reports from the ground. Understandably, reporting will be skewed towards the agenda set by Libyan State TV.

At the moment the picture is confused and contradictory and reporting increasingly lagging events on the ground with the exception of areas, such as Benghazi, that journalists can still move around with some freedom. This is inevitable in the chaos of a revolution and where the regime still has control of State TV broadcasting.

However, Pro-Democracy supporters do have a legitimate complaint. Extra weight is given to Libyan State TV with its news treated as ‘reports’ and that from the Transitional National Council treated as ‘claims’. Combined with the news initiative coming from the regime, the revolutionaries are in the defensive position of always having the re-butt Gaddafi’s claims.

News organisations may need to be more cautious with the language used in their reports. Perhaps add the same caveats applied to Libyan State TV as they would give if a Government Minder were standing off camera.

Libya Update 14th March

On the agendas of the Western Powers, the option of military intervention in Libya is moving towards the top.

Why the change from a week ago, where even talk of No Fly Zones were pooh-poohed as impractical and too risky?

Starting from a position of near paralysis, when it seemed that the revolutionaries were going to sweep Gaddafi from power, the West now senses an opportunity to assert its influence.

There are still divisions on how far military involvement should go, and some complications arising from the jockying amongst the older imperial powers. Some are trying to hedge their bets in case Gaddafi survives.

However, the options open to the West also suffer the additional weakness of being driven by two possible outcomes:

  • Gaddafi wins and the result is an emboldened rogue state with control over 10% of the worlds’ oil output and nothing to lose
  • A Transitional council under pressure to bring oil production under its control and ownership and use the proceeds for the benefit the Libyan people

Of course, neither will do!

The West are groping towards ways of establish points of influence now that they have lost control of Gaddafi. Their answer will be to try gaining influence with members of the Transitional Council. They would hope to use this influence to direct the course of events if the revolutionaries topple Gaddafi. Military aid as far as the West in concerned, whether in the form of equipment, no fly zones, aerial intelligence or training would only be viewed as a means to that end.

Clearly, any gift from the West will not be without strings…

Libya Update 08th March

After spectacular gains until the weekend, the military advance of the revolutionaries seems to have slowed in the face of stiffer resistance from Gaddafi’s better equipped brigades.

Anti-Gaddafi forces were pushed back from Bin Jwad and are currently consolidating positions in Ras Lanuf.

Some observers on seeing the speed of these advances mistakenly concluded that victory for the uprising was little more than a matter of driving on up the road to Tripoli, stopping to deal with the odd stubborn brigade here and there.

Now that the course of an uprising has refused to conform to an easy formula, some commentators have veered towards impressionism. Every victory is greeted with near euphoria, every setback provokes despair. Even news organisations have been infected with this mood.

At the moment the massive fire power of the Gaddafi forces is being pointed to, with conspiracy theories as to why it hasn’t been used yet. The explanation is likely to be quite simple, if the troops defect or are unwilling to shoot at their own people, then all that massive fire power is as useful as a massive pile of scrap metal.

What we are seeing is the ebbing and flowing of events that is an integral part of uprisings. There will be more consolidations, retreats and advances to come in the battle to defeat Gaddafi’s regime. Though the uprising has taken on a military aspect, it should not be analysed as a conventional war but as an extension of the revolution.

This is not a battle between two imperial armies for territory or oil, it is a battle for ideas, for freedom, which gives the confrontation a completely different character and life making it more comparable to the Spanish civil war than the Iraq war of 2003.

The uprising is bound to suffer setbacks as it comes up against stiffer resistance from better trained and equipped forces that have an interest in supporting the regime. The speed and adaptability of the protesters as they learn and absorb lessons on the fly shouldn’t be over-looked. What starts as shambolic and chaotic can quickly turn into efficient and highly organised action. These people after all have worked out and implemented a system of government in a couple of weeks from a standing start.

Context is all important in these circumstances. The view of the current events should be taken from their general flow over the past few weeks. With that in mind, the momentum of the uprising is still very much with the revolutionaries.

Gary Hollands – March 21st 2011.

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