Monday, 21 March 2011

Libya: The new Korea?

We've moved into the opening few days of open confrontation between the UN-mandated forces and the Libyan authorities under Gaddafi's command.

I blogged here last week about my support for the UN-led action on Libya but now, as we look at the repercussions of the opening days of conflict, it's worth casting an eye to the end-game.

How's it going so far?
What is the aim of the UN-sanctioned action in the first place? Well, it is too safeguard the Libyan civilians who are opposing Gaddafi's rule. So, how's it going so far? Well, by all accounts it seems to be going pretty well. The allies, led by the UK, US and France have rapidly managed to gain control over the airspace above Libya. That means that they've been able to neutralise Gaddafi's air attacks on his own civilians - particularly in his attempt to regain the second city Benghazi. It seems that the feeling there is now more positive as the inevitability of a Gaddafi counter-attack there has been minimised for the time being. It would seem that there is still Gaddafi-led air strikes occuring against dissidents to the west of Tripoli so the allies haven't necessarily gained complete air superiority yet in securing the No Fly Zone.

Whilst it has been the UK, US and France who have led so far, Denmark and Norway are said to be sending 6 planes each to help with their international effort. In addition, Spain has sent at least three planes, whilst Italy also has jets ready to deploy. Canada has deployed six jets to Sicily and is preparing them for action.

Source: BBC News Website

But most importantly is the news that Qatar are to send in 4 planes of their own to help enforce the No Fly Zone. As the first Arab state to do so, this would give the west-dominated UN-sanctioned effort much more credibility in the region. Other Arab countries are said to be prepared to join the effort as well and as far as the US, UK and France are concerned, the more the merrier. Why? Well because the Arab League's Secretary's call since hositilies began to pull back from ariel bombing will have concerned the west.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, who supported the UN resolution, on Sunday criticised the severity of the bombardment.

He said: "What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians".

If the Arab League begin to openly criticise the actions because they go further than merely securing a No Fly Zone then it could undermine the whole campaign. Yet, the UN resolution was a strong one and clearly gave much flexibility to the coalition forces to ensure the safety of civilians in Libya. If the Arab League aren't happy with this, why were Lebanon, one of the main instigators of the resolution along with France and the UK in the first place, not more vocal with these concerns or told by their neighbours of them at the time?

What's the end-game?
So, it seems to be going well so far. But, what next? What is the end-game?

There's news this morning that a senior Gaddafi command centre has been struck by a coalition missile strike. It is not inconceivable then that with all of this targeted bombing, Gaddafi himself may be killed during this confrontation. I doubt that will happen mind (though saying that, it is reported this morning that one of his sons Khamis Gaddafi has died of burn wounds sustained during an attack on Saturday when a Libyan Air Force pilot purposefully crashed his jet into the Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli where Gaddafi and some of his relatives are staying) and even if it did, would it make him a martyr in the eyes of his followers? Because, and let's not beat about the bush here, Gaddafi, for all we may think of him, still has a clear support base in Libya - predominantly it would seem, around the capital in Tripoli.

A significant question is, what is in the minds of the vast majority who we have not seen on the Libyan streets over recent weeks? Yes, there's a very vocal section of the population who want rid of him but likewise there's a vocal section who also support him. What of the majority that have not raised their voices either way? Do they secretly want rid of Gaddafi but are too afraid to say it or are they actually content with him and like his many keen followers, are rallying to the flag in a patriotic fervour from being under attack from 'foreign aggressors'?

This is all important because unless Gaddafi himself is killed in an air strike (and even then he would probably be replaced by one his sons like Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi) then he will retain the support of a substantial part of his country - predominantly in the west. In the east however, the second-city of Benghazi remains the hub of the anti-Gaddafi resentment.

Without coalition troops on the ground but with control of the airspace, it would be unlikely that there could be much movement from either side into the other's territory. There is the strong possibility of an impasse where both sides hold control over a significant proportion of Libyan territory. Unless the coalition forces are willing to bomb Gaddafi into submission (which would be testing the UN-mandated resolution to its limits), then what is the alternative?

If this uneasy truce were to evolve over the days, weeks and months ahead, then the stasis may resolve itself in a resolution that has uneasily kept the peace on the Korean Peninsular for the past 60 years. The allied carve-up of Korea, agreed at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945, divided the north and south along the line of the 38th parallel. A 3 year war errupted shortly afterwards from 1950-1953 and a troubled truce has lasted ever since.

Could there be a similar fate for Libya? An isolated (because he has led in isolation before) Gaddafi-led west and a UN-supported east under a more democratic, secular leadership? Probably not you may think but then, with or withour Gaddafi, what are the realistic alteranatives?


  1. Mark, isn't it a bit worrying that only now this question of the ultimate aims of military action - the endgame - is being raised?

    A no-fly zone is only ever a means to some other ends, and there doesn't seem to be much agreement on this. At what point will Messrs Cameron and Sarkozy be able to say 'mission accomplished'?

    I doubt that partition is the answer to that (i.e. 'Gaddafi's still in power, if only partially, and we're ok with that). And if not, then what? How far is this rush of blood to the head going to take the UK and France?

    As for the suggestion of partition itself, Korea doesn't seem like a very reassuring parallel to make. North Korea hasn't been twiddling its thumbs for the past half-century, happy to live in monastic isolation - instead, a mix of belligerence and existential security concerns result in a search for nuclear weapons. Is a western Libya that is scouring the world for nuclear material, on Europe's doorstep, really much of a 'resolution'?

  2. Hi Nick!

    I agree - as I mentioned in my post, the Korean scenario since 1953 has been at best uneasy and troubled.

    I'm not suggesting that partition is a reassuring potential reality - indeed, the complete opposite. My point is, without an obvious 'end-game', if the coalition forces to do not remove Gaddafi from power themselves (which they have not got the UN-mandate to do anyway), then where else does it end apart from partition?

    An added point that I didn't make in my piece is tht even that is problematic as the opposition forces are not merely concentrated in the east around Benghazi and those in the west are going to want their freedom from Gadaffi also. It'a sll rather complicated.

    Not knowing what the end-game is in this scenario isn't the worst problem - the worst problem is not planning for the different eventualities that could play themselves out. The coalition forces need to be ready for whatever may happen.