Uncertainty over Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte as Libya enters civil war

President Obama authorises military action over Libya, 20 March <em>Picture: White House / Pete Souza</em>
President Obama authorises military action over Libya, 20 March Picture: White House / Pete Souza
So far so good for the Libyan rebels. With help from the international community’s bombing raids, they now threaten Muammar al-Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, the fall of which would almost certainly lead to the regime’s collapse.

Even at this stage, however, a conclusive victory by the rag-tag rebel force is not certain. With earlier reports of Sirte’s capture now proven to have been just a rumour, there are bound to be moments when among the rebels initial euphoria gives way to self-doubt, especially when they are armed with a few Katyusha rockets but more often than not old rifles and swords or whatever else they might find to hand in their kitchen or garden shed.

So, not to be caught in a post-“Shock and Awe” scenario, where chaos and bloodshed follows regime change, foreign leaders meeting in London will be well advised to be working out what they will do if (a) Gaddafi clings to Tripoli and Sirte and other pockets of western Libya and the civil war continues for months or even years, with grim consequences for all Libyans; or (b) Gaddafi falls but the Libyan Transitional Council collapses because its leadership is not universally recognised and more chaos ensues.

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As regards scenario (a), questions may be raised about the legality of further air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces if it means that civilians in Sirte and other strongholds of the regime come under attack by the rebels.

Under United Nations Resolution 1973, air strikes are to be carried out only to protect Libyan civilians from the Gaddafi, regime. But should the UN stand by in the face of retaliatory attacks by the rebels on Sirte and Tripoli with heavy civilian casualties – or, worse still, NATO air attacks are carried out in which civilians are killed – the legitimacy of international support for the rebels would become less obvious, if not questionable.

Still, some would argue, it was the international community’s decision – not just the West’s – to get involved on the Benghazi rebels’ side. A further resolution might be required, and perhaps UN boots to enforce a demilitarised zone, although president Barack Obama has made it clear that the United States, at least, is not prepared to send in ground troops under any circumstances, as he wants the outcome of the revolution to be brought about by the Libyan people themselves.

Indeed, Obama seems less keen than Britain and France to arrest Gaddafi and take the dictator to The Hague for trial at the International Court, but whether he thinks Italy’s proposal that Gaddafi be whisked away into exile is a better idea is not clear.

Leaving aside for now the question of what to do with Gaddafi should he fall, there is the possibility that in scenario (b) the Libyan Transitional Council takes power, but soon collapses amid a free-for-all between Libyan tribes for the country’s oil wealth. Many of the Council’s leaders were until recently linked to the regime, and it is not certain what their agenda is other than taking power – although the French government, which was first to recognise the rebel transitional government, says it believes they are leaders with whom Paris, at least, can do business.

It is worth remembering, however, that Libya has no history of political parties or elections – Gaddafi sees Libya as a community-run country, without a real government, and denies he is at its head (it is even possible that he believes this). Therefore economic reconstruction of Libya after this crisis ends may take less time than the political education of its populace, which will be required if Libya is to emerge from civil war with some semblance of a democracy.

Still, full recognition of the transitional government does not seem far off, for what else can the West (and the rest of the international community) do? But still a nagging thought remains: how legitimate will a new government, which arguably could not have been installed without the huge firepower of NATO warplanes, look when things start to go wrong, as they probably will?

The Cuban Revolution had a lawyer/politician (Fidel Castro) and a doctor (Ernesto Che Guevara) pitted against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. They headed a group of not more than 30 rebels who landed on Cuban soil to train a few hundred more peasants and students to take up arms against the hated regime. They were not soldiers, yet it took the rebels three years to oust Batista – and they did this without outside help. Indeed, NATO air strikes on Libya have more in common with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion than the Cuban revolution itself.

Where are the rebel military leaders of the Libyan Revolution? Perhaps they will soon emerge. One fears, however, that any political void in a post-Gaddafi Libya might be exploited by those with long-term agendas of their own, with little regard for the desires of the people as a whole.

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