Rather than an expected quick campaign, Libya is turning into a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nightmare. The NATO-backed rebels are still far from deposing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi despite the backing of NATO airpower and weapons deliveries from France and Qatar. And with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starting August 1 and sandstorms expected in September that would hinder air strikes, the goal of a Gaddafi-free Libya in the near future appear even dimmer.
But it is the unexplained killing of rebel military commander General Abdel Fattah Younes and two aides last Thursday that has rocked the Western military alliance and made “victory” recede even further from sight. Yunes’ mysterious death has now led to rebel groups fighting each other last weekend rather than Gaddafi’s forces, increasing NATO’s frustration with its allies.
“All those groups will disappear, and they will become one unit,’ said a senior rebel commander, indicating all the loose militia groups formed at the start of the conflict last February will now be forced to become part of a regular army structure. “None of the commanders can disagree. Anybody who does will be crushed.”
Younes was the first high Gaddafi government official to defect to the rebel cause last February. Prior to his defection, Younes had been number two in the Libyan power establishment. A close associate of Gaddafi for almost forty years, he was serving as his former boss’ interior minister when he became one of the earliest and most important government figures to desert.
Gaddafi had sent Younes to Benghazi last February to deal with the uprising. But rather than carry out a counter-revolutionary purge with the military unit he had brought with him that would have seen many people killed and the city probably severely damaged, Younes decided to join the rebel cause. For their part, the rebels overlooked the fact Younes had served Gaddafi loyally for decades.
“The rebels closed both eyes, hoping other high-ranking Gaddafi people would follow the prominent deserter,” stated one German publication.
Named commander-in–chief of the rebel armed forces, Younes appeared to serve the cause loyally. He was reported to have “brought order to the rebels’ chaotic military leadership.” Abdul Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebel provisional government, said: “Without him, our victories would not have been possible.”
But last week Younes was summoned back from the front to Benghazi, the rebel capital, to appear before a tribunal of four judges for questioning. The rebel military commander was “released on his own recognizance,” but was killed in front of his house along with two aides three hours later. Two rebel fighters have been arrested.
There is much speculation as to why Younes was targeted for assassination. The government favours the theory that Gaddafi’s thugs were responsible. Another rumour for his killing is that he was still in touch with Gaddafi and thus committing treason, which was the reason for his recall. The failure of the rebels’ recent offensive at Brega and the fatalities they suffered are attributed to his treasonous activities. In an interview last April, one of Gaddafi’s daughters indicated Younes was still loyal to her father, even though Gaddafi had put “a large price on his head.
“…the interview may well have been an attempt to discredit him inside the rebel camp, but it is important to note that fleeting loyalties are a characteristic of the Libyan conflict,” wrote one observer. “Numerous government soldiers have defected, including senior officials; the government claims that many rebels have defected back.”
Defections are not uncommon in a civil war. Sensing a weakening in the rebel position, Younes’ secret return to the government’s fold is a possibility, especially if Gaddafi was holding any members of his family hostage. Another rumour concerning his assassination had Younes in a power struggle with Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan general who had been living in exile in the United States the past ten years. When he returned to Libya, it was announced last March Khalifa was now the commander of the rebel forces, but he was eventually regulated to the position of commander of ground forces.
But the more likely explanation for his death is that Younes was the victim of personal vengeance. As interior minister, he would have overseen the imprisonment, torture and murder of many Libyans. It was reported a guard in his security detail was one of the assassins from the rebel militia group February 17 Martyrs Brigade, whose members were among the first to take up arms against Gaddafi. In their ranks are also Islamists, some of whom were probably imprisoned in Gaddafi’s dungeons. One of the arrested rebel fighters is described as “longbearded” and “from the coastal city of Darnah, a hotbed of Islamist sentiment.”
Younes’ death could not have come at a worse time for NATO. The humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch has accused the rebels of crimes in the cities and villages of Western Libya they have raided or recaptured from Gaddafi’s forces. Their human rights violations have caused a loss in international support. US Senator John McCain demanded in a letter sent to the rebel government two days ago that it investigate and stop these abuses or risk losing American backing. Embarrassingly, the United States and other Western governments had recently recognised the NTC as Libya’s government.
The Western European countries involved in the Libya operation are also becoming weary of the length and cost of the war. Europe is facing its own financial crisis with Greece, which makes it more difficult to justify the continued expense of the Libyan conflict, especially since it appears the side the Europeans are supporting is just as brutal in violating human rights as Gaddafi. And the fact a rebel faction may just have murdered its own commander-in-chief discredits the rebel cause even further.
But with Younes’ death and the subsequent inter-rebel fighting, NATO’s greatest fear now is that the rebel cause will disintegrate into tribal fighting. Arab countries have been called tribes with flags, and Libya seems to bear this out. The war in Libya is first and foremost a tribal fight.
Younes, for example, belonged to the Obeidi tribe, the largest in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Libya. After his assassination, fighters from his tribe went to the hotel where a press conference concerning his murder was being held and shot out the windows to show their anger. Wisely, the rebel ruling council appointed another member of the Obeidi tribe as his replacement.
So even if the rebels do manage to depose Gaddafi, the war may not be at an end. As when the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Gaddafi’s defeat may just represent the first stage of a multi-phase war, in which the tribes will fight over the spoils, like control of the oil or Western aid money, and the Islamists in their ranks will battle to establish an Islamic state. The lack of discipline in the rebel forces that the Younes killing revealed indicates this is more than a distinct possibility.
Such a development would represent a disaster for NATO’s war aims. While NATO states it got involved in the Libyan conflict to protect Libyan civilians, this excuse now appears highly unlikely. The most likely reason for NATO’s involvement is that countries like France and Great Britain wanted to secure the Libyan oil deposits they feared Gaddafi was going to turn over to China and India.
The desire to secure and protect Libya’s oil infrastructure even saw NATO allow an International Criminal Court fugitive, Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, to send troops into southern Libya to provide security for an oil-producing area against Gaddafi’s forces. Allowing Bashir, who is wanted for committing genocide in Darfur and South Sudan and is currently preparing to exterminate the Nuba in central Sudan, into Libya hardly corresponds to NATO’s stated desire to protect civilians.
But the lack of stability under a tribally-fractious, rebel-ruled Libya may never allow these NATO countries to develop the all-important oil deposits, similar to the way the violence in Afghanistan is holding that country’s development back. And a failure to depose Gaddafi would also have a similar, constant, destabilising effect. As long as he and his thugs are armed and free, the Libyan people would always be in danger, and civil war would eventually be resumed, even if Libya was to be partitioned.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson called the developing Vietnam War “just the biggest damn mess I ever saw.” By refusing to commit ground troops early in the uprising to depose Gaddafi and attempting instead to wage war through the United Nations, NATO has probably also created “the biggest damn mess” it will ever see. But in the long run, it is the Libyan people who will have to pay for this inexcusable short-sightedness.