Qaddafi’s barbaric war on the uprising

March 17, 2011

Qaddafi's immediate and unrestrained ruthlessness is one of several factors that has helped the regime to mount a counterattack on rebel forces, says David Whitehouse.

MUAMMAR EL-QADDAFI'S superior firepower, plus his willingness to use it against rebel forces and civilians alike, seems to have turned the tide against a Libyan rebellion that began February 17. By midweek, Qaddafi loyalists were bombarding Misurata, the only western city still in rebel hands, while gathering forces for an assault on Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the rebels' last key stronghold in the east.

Qaddafi's prompt and ruthless response to the uprising allowed little time for the rebellion to develop political or organizational cohesion before it was thrown into a military contest, town by town, against better-equipped and better-trained government forces.

In contrast to last week, it now seems that Western military intervention is increasingly unlikely in the short run, as Germany blocked a Group of Eight endorsement of a no-fly zone, and China and Russia were set to do the same in the UN Security Council.

The Obama administration, already wary about committing to a new armed conflict in the Muslim world, spent the week temporizing over the risks and effectiveness of a no-fly zone--and grew cooler to the option as Qaddafi seemed to be getting the upper hand. "With the advances made by loyalists, there is growing consensus in the Obama administration that imposing a no-fly zone over Libya would no longer make much of a difference," a senior official told the New York Times.

A 14-year-old boy injured by Qaddafi's forces outside of Brega
A 14-year-old boy injured by Qaddafi's forces outside of Brega (Al Jazeera)

Arab commentators suspect that U.S. officials will be privately pleased if Qaddafi carries out a successful crackdown, since it could "create a firebreak between the revolutions in North Africa and its oil-rich Gulf clients," the Financial Times said in an editorial.

This assessment of what U.S. officials really care about was confirmed when officials voiced only muted caution as Gulf kingdoms sent troops into Bahrain on Tuesday. Armed forces from oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates arrived to back up the Bahraini royal family's suppression of an uprising that began when Libya's did.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and in contrast to Obama's demand for Qaddafi's resignation, the U.S. has only counseled the Bahraini monarchy to offer some democratic reforms and practice "restraint" in its crackdown on the opposition.

The twists and turns of Western policy toward Libya highlight the hypocrisy of the imperialist powers. The U.S. and other powerful nations seemed to be leaning toward military intervention when the uprising was winning, not for the stated "humanitarian" reasons, but as an excuse to squelch dissent and confront the tide of revolution in the Arab world. The grisly truth behind the apparent turn away from intervention is that Western powers now expect Qaddafi, their ally just months ago, to do the job for them.

QADDAFI'S MILITARY offensive is led by two of his sons and staffed by tribal allies and other long-term recipients of Qaddafi's oil-funded patronage, including fighters from the nomadic Tuareg people, who have served in the past as proxy forces in conflicts with Libya's southern neighbors.

Early speculation that Qaddafi's 41-year reign might end with a military coup seems increasingly implausible as the top ranks of his military forces have remained loyal--and pushed back effectively against the rebels. The first rule of patronage politics is to "back a winner," especially a wealthy one, and Qaddafi is winning right now.

Since last Saturday, pro-Qaddafi forces have used rockets, tanks, artillery and warplanes to sweep into the eastern half of the country--storming the rebel-held refinery towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega, along with the key crossroads city of Ajdabiya.

The retreat of rebel forces in Ajdabiya set off a panicked flight of civilians toward Benghazi, 90 miles to the northeast, according to a Christian Science Monitor reporter on the scene. One fighter summed up the fear by telling the Monitor, "Qaddafi will be arresting and killing thousands if we lose."

In western Libya, pro-regime forces continued to lay siege to Misurata, the country's third-largest city after Tripoli and Benghazi. On March 15, the Independent reported that Qaddafi's forces "consolidated his stronghold around Tripoli by seizing the Zuwarah, the last rebel-held town west of the capital, after a heavy barrage of tank and artillery fire."

The previous week, government forces seized the western refinery town of Zawiyah in a furious tank and artillery assault that left the place "deeply wounded and shaken," according to a Time magazine reporter who went on a government-sponsored tour of the recaptured city. Demolished buildings ringed the central square, and a CBS reporter noted that fresh graves of fallen rebels were already bulldozed over.

By March 15, government forces, fresh from their western victories in Zawiyah and Zuwarah, were speeding east to join forces around Ajdabiya for what could be the final assaults on Benghazi and Tobruk.

The cohesion of pro-Qaddafi forces has so far formed a sharp contrast to the divided responses of the outside world.

The Arab League suspended Qaddafi's membership and then called for a no-fly zone, backed by the UN Security Council, over the objections of Syria, Algeria and Mauritania. The league's call was a departure from its usual refusal to support Western intervention in Arab states. Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary general, highlighted this hypocrisy by saying that a no-fly zone would be a humanitarian measure to protect Libyan civilians and foreigners and "not a military intervention," according to the Associated Press.

Moussa attributed the league's shift to the pressure of Arab populations that have been encouraged by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But the Arab League rulers also had their own reasons to vote for action against Qaddafi, who has stung them for years with rhetoric exposing their client relation to the West--even as he slid into such a relation himself in the past decade.

The African Union (AU), on the other hand, rejected outside military intervention. Underlying the African rulers' defense of self-determination, of course, was a fear of setting a precedent for their own removal or the partition of their countries--one option that was initially floated for Libya when the rebellion grew most strongly in the east. Besides, many of these rulers are also beneficiaries in Qaddafi's extended oil patronage network, and Libya provides 15 percent of the funds for the AU itself.

In Europe, France's Nicolas Sarkozy stepped forward early to recognize the Libyan National Council (LNC), the rebels' leadership group based in Benghazi. He called for a no-fly zone and for direct attacks on Qaddafi's headquarters--which would be a replay of Ronald Reagan's airborne assassination attempt in 1986.

Germany, however, held out against military action and blocked NATO and the G8 from endorsing a no-fly zone (with Turkey's backing in NATO and Russia's in the G8).

The U.S. never openly endorsed a no-fly zone and, unlike Sarkozy, didn't leap to recognize the LNC as a replacement for Qaddafi's government. The council includes prominent defectors from Qaddafi's regime, along with figures who are less familiar to the West.

As the rebels' military fortunes declined, it looked like anybody's bet whether this improvised leadership body would continue to exist after this first round of Libya's rebellion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met for just 45 minutes with unnamed representatives of the council behind closed doors in Paris--and did not emerge speaking of any commitment to the LNC.

NEVERTHELESS, EVEN the military defeat of the current rebellion would not signal the end of resistance to Qaddafi's regime. Qaddafi has outlived many other challenges to his power, but this one is by far the broadest and deepest.

Qaddafi is securing control of Libya's cities at the expense of hundreds or even thousands of lives, so his "victory" will leave people even more bitter than they were at the beginning of the rebellion. His reprisals against the rebels have only begun.

Qaddafi's offensive has been possible only by cementing his tribal connections in western Libya, which leave easterners out of effective national power. And even in the west, many chafe against his iron rule, including the Berbers known as the Amazigh, whose very existence has been denied by the regime and who joined in the uprising.

The Amazigh were activated by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt--and were instrumental to the rebel capture of places such as Zuwarah, one of the last towns to hold out against Qaddafi's forces in the east.

The string of revolts across North Africa and the Middle East provide a laboratory for potential rebels to draw practical lessons in how to defeat a dictator and extend democracy from words into living reality.

Comparisons of different national experiences are going on as the rebellions unfold. Why is the fate of the Libyan uprising, thus far, so different from the experiences in Tunisia and Egypt?

The Tunisian revolt possessed, in the first place, the element of surprise, and had the advantage of facing a ruling circle around Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali that was increasingly regarded, even by other members of the country's economic elite, as a narrow, family-based kleptocracy.

The Egyptian regime may have had deeper and wider roots than Ben Ali's, with connections extending through the top layers of the army and the capitalist class, but the revolt also had deeper roots than Tunisia's. As in Tunisia, there were multi-class crowds that poured out into the streets, but the Egyptian movement was also built on years of resistance from sources such as the Muslim brotherhood and a working-class movement with several years of development under its belt.

These sources of political and organizational cohesion, binding together Egypt's movements at the grassroots, are what held Hosni Mubarak back from throwing the full weight of the army against the movement. He could be not be sure that the lower ranks wouldn't break and take sides, actively or passively, with the movement. The data for this calculation were also available to other members of Egypt's elite, including the top generals, who decided to cut Mubarak loose and preserve their own privileges, rather than running the risks of testing the army against the rising movement.

In Libya, Qaddafi seems to be teaching a lesson that is likely to be heeded by other dictatorships--and needs to be considered by others in the region who want to rise up against them. Qaddafi's offensive is showing the effectiveness of a prompt and ruthless response against an insurrectionary movement before it has had a chance to develop adequate political or organizational cohesion to stand up against the forces of the state.

The situation is a testament to Qaddafi's success in long-term games of divide-and-rule--not only in dividing the country's east against the west and tribe against tribe, but also in dividing a native population against a mass of low-wage immigrant workers, who make up as much as one-third of the population--and who come largely from sub-Saharan Africa.

The Libyan rebellion will rise again because its grievances are only perpetuated by Qaddafi's continued rule. The grievances of immigrants must be counted along with those of native-born Libyans, and future rebellions will need the participation of Black African workers--whose role in the recent revolt has ranged from bystander to scapegoat.

Given recent experience, the form of the rebellion will be crucial to its success. The regime's opponents will probably need a period of regroupment and a chance to fight partial struggles against the regime to gain strength and unity before attempting another all-out assault.

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