Today, on March 19, 2011, the U.S., U.K. and France at long last intervened in Libya as Qaddafi’s forces began the final assault to finish off the rebels. After thousands of deaths and incalculable destruction, Operation Odyssey Dawn began with air and missile strikes on Qaddafi’s tanks and air defenses in an attempt to perform an 11th hour rescue.
France fired the first shots by destroying four of Qaddafi’s tanks near Benghazi, the capital of the opposition. Over 100 Tomahawk missiles were then fired from U.S. and British warships and submarines to destroy about 20 air defense sites. The immediate objective is to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from putting a quick end to the conflict by overrunning Benghazi and pave the way for the establishment of a no fly zone. Various European countries will soon be involved and Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are expected to contribute and Egypt is arming the rebels.
The West says that the goal of military operations is not to overthrow Qaddafi. U.S. Vice Admiral William Gortney said that the objective is to “deny the Libyan regime from using force against its own people.” French President Sarkozy said regime change is not being sought but Qaddafi must “allow the Libyan people to choose their own destiny.” The apparent goal is a ceasefire as Sarkozy stated the “door to diplomacy will reopen when the fighting will stop.”
The Libyan uprising began on February 15 and escalated into a civil war as Qaddafi’s forces used brutal violence to try to crush its opponents, which included tactics such as machine-gunning attendees at funerals. The opposition consistently begged for help from the United States and international community that did not include the deployment of ground forces. The Libyan ambassador to the U.S. who turned against Qaddafi said in exasperation, “’All the options are on the table,’ they say all the time. I say, ‘Take one option at least.’” He explained that the lack of U.S. action was vindicating anti-American beliefs in the Arab world that it “has only a materialist mind—they don’t care about human rights…except when it comes to their own interest.” The public prediction of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence that the rebels would lose certainly didn’t help.
A military commander in Tobruk who defected to the opposition said that he hoped the West would not be dissuaded from doing the right thing because of its oil business with Qaddafi. As far back as February 19, a woman in Benghazi was being interviewed on CNN where she begged over and over for help, pleading, “Mr. Obama, please help us.” France and the U.K. became the loudest supporters of establishing a no fly zone and supporting the rebels and France formally recognized the opposition. The U.S., on the other hand, delayed action as Qaddafi’s forces were able to turn the situation around and begin taking back territory. By the time the Arab League and United Nations approved a military intervention, many people had lost their lives and the rebels were on the brink of defeat. One estimate put the number of deaths at 10,000.
Qaddafi has reacted by saying Libya is the victim of “barbaric, unjustified Crusaders’ aggression” and vowed to make the Mediterranean Sea a “real battlefield.” He also wrote a strange letter of admiration to President Obama. Qaddafi told him that even though the U.S. and Libya are at war, “you will always remain a son.” He then asks for advice. “What would you do if you found them [Al-Qaeda] controlling American cities with the power of weapons? What would you do, so I can follow your example,” his spokesman read from his text.
The Libyan dictator must now decide his next move. He has not ended military operations and so it is likely he will try to take over or destroy Benghazi and as much of the rebel forces and their territory as possible before his ground forces are bombed. The city had already become a battleground shortly before the strikes began. He previously said that if the West attacked, all sea and air traffic in the Mediterranean Sea, both military and civilian, would become legitimate targets. He also said he would align with Al-Qaeda and declare a jihad on the West, even though he consistently claims the rebels are a part of the terrorist organization. The Qaddafi regime could potentially enlist the support of terrorists or directly carry out terrorist attacks itself as it has in the past.
Qaddafi will also probably turn to his own international friends for support. Hugo Chavez is harshly condemning the operations and he has gotten aid from Algeria, Syria and Belarus. Over two dozen Syrian pilots are reported to have been helping him fight back against the rebels. However, Syria’s best ally, Iran, has vocally supported the rebels. On March 18, anti-American demonstrators in Iran protested in support of the uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya and the head of the Guardian Council encouraged the rebels to fight until Qaddafi is overthrown.
The Libyan rebels now have hope to survive but may have to accept only a partial liberation of the country as a ceasefire, not regime change, is the objective of this intervention. The cause is not lost as it is probable that much of Qaddafi’s forces will rather lay down their arms or defect than face Western military might and the opposition will win more support as time progresses. For Qaddafi, the military operations dash his hopes of reclaiming all of Libya but he can feel some sense of victory for preserving his rule when it seemed as if its end was near.
The West may impose a ceasefire in Libya but it will not, by any means, end the conflict. The rebels will not give up their goal of overthrowing Qaddafi and he will not give up his goal of crushing them and punishing all those who dared to challenge him.
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