Defections, US Withdrawal Point to Political Solution in Libya

The United States is ending its active involvement in the UN-authorized air raids to stop dictator Muammar Qaddafi from massacring dissidents. NATO says it is against arming the rebels or fomenting a civil war. The slow, cautious war of attrition from the air against Qaddafi’s forces that undertake attacks on civilians in rebel-held cities will continue. Qaddafi’s closest associates are fleeing from Tripoli in terror of being held accountable for his crimes against humanity when his regime ultimately falls.

Some of these developments on Thursday drew howls of outrage from hawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, which is how you know that they are promising developments. It is better that the intervention in Libya not be branded a US one, but rather be seen as the effort of the 28 nations of NATO plus the Arab League. It is true that the US is a big part of NATO, but it doesn’t have to be a big part of the air war. (One of the reasons President Obama authorized covert operations in Libya is that US personnel are trained in painting lasers on targets for precision aerial bombing, which will allow NATO and UN allies to be more effective.)

The news that the disorganized civilians who picked up a gun and drove to Brega and Ra’s Lanuf last week are being pushed back by the Libyan military is not actually interesting, surprising, or indicative of the way the intervention in Libya is going. The push-back was only possible because weather made it difficult for NATO to do any bombing raids in the past few days, exposing the untrained rebels to superior firepower and the maneuvers of trained troops. The weather will improve, and the bombing raids will resume, and Qaddafi will have fewer and fewer heavy weapons over time. Those who wanted to see 1500 rebels sweep in from the east without air cover are being unrealistic, and also unwise. It is better if there isn’t an eastern conquest of the west.

The defection of Libya’s foreign minister, Moussa Kussa came after he and other regime elements around Muammar Qaddafi were threatened by US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, with being “held accountable.” This defection demonstrates that the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya is already yielding fruit in splitting the elite around Qaddafi in Tripoli and inspiring in some of them the fear of being tried for war crimes. The first few to act on this fear will defect. Later on, they may well be numerous and powerful and desperate enough to put the Qaddafis under chloroform and just drive them to the airport and wish them a bon voyage to Caracas.

Aljazeera English reports that 4 or 5 other senior Libyan officials appear to have fled to Tunisia or Egypt and do not intend to come back, including the current head of Intelligence, the Oil Minister, the deputy foreign minister, and the head of the people’s congress. (The Intelligence Minister subsequently appeared on state t.v. to deny this claim, but the others are unanswered so far).

This truly great AP article by Hadeel al-Shalchi and Lee Keath explains that the significance of Kussa’s defection lies in its being a sign of the winds shifting against Qaddafi with his inner circle, which will affect the loyalty of his outer circle of tribal leaders. Many key members of the powerful Warfalla and Megarha tribes have already declared against Qaddafi, and Firjan and others are wavering. Tribes as loose systems of kinship politics, are volatile and fluid, and their allegiances can change rapidly. (Americans might remember that many members of the Dulaim tribe in Iraq fought tooth and nail against US troops in 2004-2005 but by 2006-2007 many were joining pro-American militias, the ‘Sons of Iraq.’) The tribes could turn on Qaddafi in a second, aside from his own and a few loyalists.

In announcing the end of US bombing raids in Libya, Gates “noted that the air attacks are a central feature of the overall military strategy; over time they could degrade Gadhafi’s firepower to a point that he would be unable to put down a renewed uprising by opposition forces…”

That is, Gates hopes that over time, Col. Muammar Qaddafi will simply have fewer and fewer tanks, artillery pieces, and armored vehicles. He has already lost the ability to bomb Benghazi and other cities from the air.

Gates’s premise seems to be that most Libyans don’t want to be under Qaddafi’s rule, and that the only way he subdued Zuara, Zawiya, Tajoura, Ra’s Lanuf, and other cities that had thrown him off was by main force. When his main force is subjected to sufficient attrition, his advantage will suddenly disappear and the opposition to him of the liberation movement will suddenly cascade. I don’t personally think that this cascade requires military means. It happened once largely peacefully, as in Egypt in Tunisia, and can happen again if Qaddafi’s heavy weapons can be neutralized.

People who want the attrition of Qaddafi’s forces to be visited in only a week or two are just being unrealistic. It would happen over weeks and maybe months.

In the meantime, the UN allies (NATO and the Arab League) have as their most urgent mission the protection of Benghazi from any major attack, which can be done aerially.

What bad thing would happen if NATO and the Arab League just proceed deliberately and with patience?

Impatience makes for bad policy. Those who urge Western military troops the ground are making a huge error– that development would never be acceptable to most of the Libyan people nor to the Arab League, nor to the majority on the UN Security Council.

Others of the tribe of the impatient want to put sophisticated weapons in rebel hands. Those who think the US or NATO should arm the rebels, however, are simply paving the way for a civil war and for a long-term cycle of violence. Having a rebel army conquer reluctant cities like Sirt, which still support Qaddafi in the main, is undesirable. Let pro-Qaddafi cities alone. The main task should be to protect the anti-Qaddafi populace from his attacks.

NATO agrees. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday that his organization differs with those who have suggested that UNSC Resolution 1973 allows the arming of the rebels. In other words, NATO’s leadership concurs with the column published here yesterday by John Torpey.

US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates clearly has a model in his mind somewhat like Serbia in 1999-2000. In spring 1999 Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic sent troops into Kosovo, which began committing a massacre. NATO intervened to roll that back. During that war, Milosevic was indicted at the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

Milosevic’s attempt to tinker with the presidential election of October 1999 provoked massive street protests against him. His military informed him that they would not support him. By spring of 2001 he was arrested by his own people and that summer he was surrendered to the United Nations.

NATO’s aerial bombing missions were what stopped the advance into Kosovo of Serbian troops. But it was the world community’s relegation of Milosevic to pariah status that helped the Serbian elite turn against him.

The International Criminal Court has been charged by the UN with looking into whether Qaddafi can be charged with crimes against humanity (and if not he, who could?) The ICC seems likely to return an indictment before too long. Such indictments have powerful real-world effects, as seen with Milosevic. Although this development might make it more difficult to find a place of exile for the Qaddafis, it would almost certainly hasten the fracturing of the Tripoli elite and an end to the conflict.

The Libyan conflict could never have been resolved militarily. It will wind to its end over time because of political shifts. Kussa’s defection is not the first from Qaddafi’s inner circle, and it won’t be the last.

Posted in Libya | 31 Responses | Print |

31 Responses

  1. The defection came after he and other were threatened by US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, with being “held accountable.”

    Because they and you seriously believe they will not? The name of Tarek Aziz comes to mind.

  2. My only fear in this steady trickle of defections from Gazzafi’s government is that more brutal or incompetent people will take over the defectors’ jobs, and that a lot more people will die as a result in the government occupied areas.

    • Regarding the rebels’ retreat, it’s certainly sensible to do so in the face of overwhelming firepower *and* if you can count on air support to attack troops trying to take advantage of your flight. Now that NATO is involved, the rebels can be choosy in their tactical initiatives, they no longer have to fight to avoid being slaughtered in Benghazi. NATO will likely have increasing difficulty in getting them to do more than mop up after air assaults.

  3. Hi Juan, Milosevic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) not the ICC (which came into existence in 2002.) Also, the ICTY prosecutor Louis Arbour was criticized at the time by those who felt that her indictment would limit the possiblities of a negotiated solution—see Twilight of Impunity by Judith Armatta, or my article Geographies of Justice. Regards, Amy

  4. I see a parrallel in the Lybian Civil War to the Finnish-Soviet War of the 1940s. Finland (the good guys) were fighting the Soviets (the bad guys versus Finland) who were fighting the NAZIs (the worst guys).
    In this case you have the rebels (the unknown guys) fighting the government forces (the likely bad guys compared to the rebels) who have been fighting the imperialist successors to the NAZIs for the past 40 years.
    I do not like being put in to a situation where I have to chose between to the two sides in Lybia. Perhaps the rebels will fight the imperialist empire as well even though they would be indebted to them.
    I have my doubts that the rebels would oppose the empire under those conditions though. So my heart win or lose goes to the government forces in this case.

  5. Interesting perspective. I take one point to be that the goal of intervention to protect Libya’s armed “rebels” might be limited to creating an environment in which non-violent resistance could take place without the demonstrators being slaughtered. In other words, NATO would attempt to create conditions under which the rebels could lay down their arms and organize politically, effectively ending the violence from both sides. That would be something to see.

  6. Very interesting point of view. I tend to agree with the overall strategy (no regime change by military conquest but by collapse of the regime from within) behind it, but I have some critical notes on how we achieve this goal:

    First, what about Misrata? Obviously, it is not possibly to free Misrata by air strikes. It seems to me that it is only a matter of time until Misrata will fall completely to Gaddafi’s forces. Strengthening their hold on the West of the country. Apart from that strategic issue, the people in Misrata are suffering and there has to be done something. What about sending well-equipped anti-Gaddafi-forces via ships to Misrata to enforce the resistance there? The harbour has to be made safe for humanitarian aid ships.

    Second, as regards the East: I think it is decisive that Gaddafi looses important oil cities like Brega and Ras Lanuf! This would increase the pressure on the regime and would accelerate its dissolution. NATO should try to cripple Gaddafi forces in the East as much as possible so that the opposition could dig in 60km east of Sirte thereby establishing a kind of stable front line. This would give them some time to built a better organized “army” and gain international recognition. The pro-Gaddafi clans in Sirte have to be won over through negotiations assuring them that there will be a place for them in a post-Gaddafi Libya and that they don’t have to fear reprisal. If Sirte changes its allegiance the game is over for Gaddafi.

    In a nutshell: Gaddafi’s inner circle must loose any hope of being able to keep the West of the country under their control for a longer period or even of pushing the opposition forces back to Benghazi. I think providing some weapons to the opposition forces and training them is crucial, sending the clear signal that the Coalition powers won’t let Gaddafi win this war. He won’t be able to survive militarily in the long run.

  7. And now we know, from Pepe Escobar at Asia Times:

    “You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya – the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.”

    And considering that it is the Saudis who really want Gaddafi gone, this means the US basically did their bidding. But of course the US and the EU intend to benefit from this as well.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that the bulk of the reason for this intervention was to mess with Libyan oil, just as the primary reason to invade Iraq was to take Iraqi oil OFF the market, as Greg Palast proved when he uncovered State Department documents actually authored by Houston oil executives that recommended that course of action.

    Pepe also declares the following:

    “A curious development is already visible. NATO is deliberately allowing Gaddafi forces to advance along the Mediterranean coast and repel the “rebels”. There have been no surgical air strikes for quite a while.

    The objective is possibly to extract political and economic concessions from the defector and Libyan exile-infested Interim National Council (INC) – a dodgy cast of characters including former Justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, US-educated former secretary of planning Mahmoud Jibril, and former Virginia resident, new “military commander” and CIA asset Khalifa Hifter. The laudable, indigenous February 17 Youth movement – which was in the forefront of the Benghazi uprising – has been completely sidelined.”

    In short, what was an indigenous rebellion of at least a significant portion of Libya has now been co-opted by the US, the EU and the Saudis for their own agenda. Whether they can keep control if and when Gaddafi is overthrown is another matter and is as yet unknown.

  8. Hey kids, don’t you fret…the Spooky’s and Warthogs are on the job!! I can hardly wait ’till they do a “Falluja” on Tripoli!! (sarchasm alert)

  9. put the Qaddafis under chloroform and just drive them to the airport and wish them a bon voyage to Caracas . . .

    Was this slight to Venezuela necessary?

  10. Any defection from the loyalists is good news. Perhaps the loyalist cause will indeed unwind politically, and these defections of diplomats and other govt officials are part of that unwinding. But for right now, there is clearly a civil war on, and the firmest conjecture is that this will be decided on the battlefield. It would be nice if the loyalist side of that war would just evaporate, but it’s far from clear that it will, and I think we have to still rely on an understanding of battlefield realities, not the defections of politicoes, to understand how this is going.

    And in terms of that civil war, only the defections of loyalist soldiers count. Even high-ranking generals only count insofar as they bring their troops with them. We can’t be sure, but it certainly doesn’t appear that the generals in Cyrenaica who did go over to the insurgents took whole, organized, units with them.

    I agree that it’s not surprising that some ad hoc groups of enthusiastic insurgents who attacked towards Sirte a few days ago were quickly repulsed. What I find concerning is the lack of evidence that the insurgents have anything but ad hoc forces. Not that they would necessarily have committed them to attacking Sirte a few days ago. They wouldn’t have done that unless they had a lot of such units capable of maneuver warfare to spare. To me the episode that tells the story is the lack of appearance by solid insurgent units in the crisis immediately preceding the insurgent drive on Sirte. The loyalists were on the outskirts of Benghazi, but obviously, in hindsight, not in overwhelming strength. That would have been the time to let loose any high quality reserves the insurgents had, when the loaylists were perhaps overextended, and definitely threatening the heart of the insurgency. They can lose and retake Ras Lanuf a dozen times without threatening their cause, but loss of Benghazi would be terrible for them.

    Of course, it’s possible that they have good units in reserve, but simply had steady enough nerves to not commit them, confident enough in their battlefield intelligence that the loyalist forces were just a feint, not a serious attempt ot take the city, and/or that NATO’s planes would have them retreating without takling Benghazi. But that just doesn’t seem terribly likely. Most likely, all that the insurgents have is ad hoc fighters, and the generals who defected to them didn’t bring functioning units with them.

    If that’s the case, don’t expect any amount of “degradation” of loalist forces by air power to equalize things. Much larger air forces had a long time to “degrade” Saddam’s ground army in Kuwait in the 1st Gulf War, and Saddam still had plenty of tanks and artillery pieces by the time the ground offensive started. We couldn’t even track his mobile SCUDs, large, slow, unwieldy things that they were, and tnaks and artillery are much easier to hide. Air power has probably already done most of what it’s ever going to do in getting rid of loyalist tanks and heavy artillery.

    The good news is that tanks and artillery are fairly useless anyway at doing what the loyalists have to do right now to win this war outright, which is to take Benghazi and the other cities in Cyrenaica. City fighting will also tend to level their advantage in overall unit quality, as even unorganized, ad hoc, fighters can do well, relative to their problems with maneuver warfare, if all you ask them to do is hold fixed positions in urban terrain.

    Because of those factors, I tend toi think right now that a stalemate is the most likely outcome, at least form a purely military perspective. Of course, the insurgents win outright if the loyalist cause unwinds politically. But I don’t see them winning on the battlefield outright. And the loyalist path to outright victory is hampered by the equalizing effects of urban warfare.

    At any rate, if the loyalists are going to make a stab at outright victory, expect them to make their move towards Benghazi or Tobruk as soon as the forces, including apparently some of their good units, that took Misrata can recover and be moved east. The sooner the better, from their point of view.

    If they don’t try for outright victory, they will presumably settle for letting Cyrenaica become an enclave, a la Iraqi Kurdistan. Unless Qaddafi is crazy, once they decide thay can’t take Benghazi, they will settle for a sort of Kurdistan, hoping that Cyrenaica won’t gel as an independent state because, unlike Kurdistan, it has no particular tradition of ethnic or political separatism.

    The insurgents, fearing this long-term weakness, may not want to settle for enclave status.

    The political question for Obama and other sane and well-meaning advocates of our intervention, will be how we would stave off the utterly predictable Republican assault on any sane limits to our involvement. The Republicans will have as allies in pushing for a complete and outright insurgent victory, the insurgent leadership itself. We were able, politically, to settle for just an enclave for the Kurds after the 1st Gulf War, rahter than supporting their maximalist goals for independence and/or the removal of Saddam. Could that forebearance hold now, post 9/11, when Qaddafi actually does have the history of “supporting terrorism” that was absent in Saddam’s case?

    In Gates’ recent testimony, for the first time in a good while, I have been deeply encouraged by a public statement by an administration official. It is the courageous and right thing to do to stop further bombing by US planes. But how long will they be able to hold that line against the McCains and the Grahams? Those two will unfortunatley have the enthusiastic help of the insurgents, who will be in a position to do all sorts of things to force Obama’s hand. Winning a war is hard, losing is easy, and all they have to do is lose battles in a spectacular and impossible to ignore fashion to force Obama’s hand. Sadly, it’s the well-meaning intervention, however strenuously the administration has tried to minimize our involvement, that will make any insurgent losses impossible to ignore.

    • I agree one of the main problems is the lack of activity on the part of the defecting Libyan soldiers who “joined” the rebellion, but by most reports have sat out the actual fight in their bases in the east.

      There were reportedly thousands of defecting Libyan soldiers in the early days of the rebellion. Since then, not ONE single media report has indicated that ANY of them are actually in the fight. All we hear is that they’re “organizing” – for weeks now. Some reports have explicitly said that they’re hanging back because they fear what will happen if the rebels lose. Of course, the logic there is that they should JOIN the fight in that case and make sure the rebels don’t lose.

      It’s ridiculous.

      • You spoke too soon. BBC News, outside Brega, April 1:

        link to

        Roadblocks were set up, and inexperienced and high-spirited fighters were stopped from heading to the frontline.

        And then the most significant sign of change – the arrival of Abdul Fatah Younis, the former interior minister and the man who was in charge of the country’s special forces, and Khalifa Haftar, the former head of the armed forces.

      • Well, I’m not an expert on the Libyan military, and even the experts have to wait and see how everything they know about their peacetime military shakes out in the reality of a civil war. I’m sure there has been quite a bit of internal desertion and outright desertion on all hands.

        The problem with the units that were stationed in Cyrenaica may have been, and I hasten to repeat this is not an area of expertise for me, conscript, regular army. In all but the best armies, those with long traditions of military success, there tends to be this pattern of conscript armies, whereby there is a small cadre of officers who serve whole careers, but all of the enlisted are two-year conscripts. There isn’t much in the way of long-term service enlisted, no strong non-commissioned officer base. Such forces would be especially prone to just disintegrate in the face of a crisis like this one, a civil war, where some or all of the officers wander off this way or that to join one side or the other, but the enlisted ranks don’t think of themselves as soldiers, have no loyalty to the army, don’t really even know much about soldiering, so they just decamp after their officers leave. These conscript armies can be pretty notional, in the sense that everyone, bored officers and enlisted chafing to get their mandatory service done so they can get on with their real lives, is just going through the motions. This was part of the paper tiger quality to the forces of the late unlamented Warsaw Pact. They were huge on paper, with impressive equipment lists as well, but in reality nothing about them worked, it was mostly sham. When they were finally called on to do something real world, they couldn’t even mobilize under peacetime conditions to overawe the Gdansk shipyard workers.

        The loyalists, on the other hand, or at least their good units, seem to be largely special troops, with mostly career soldiers at all rank levels, more like what we are used to in US military establishments. The loyalists no doubt have conscript units as well that were stationed in Tripolitania. These may be as useless to Qaddafi as the conscript units of Cyrenaica are to the insurgents, it’s just that we don’t hear about them because no media covers such things in loyalist territory. The special units, the real and only effective Libyan army, seems to have been stationed mostly in Tripolitania, and between that and their being chosen and groomed for loyalty to the regime, the loyalists seem to have wound up with all of them.

        This could all be wrong, of course. We only know what the media is reporting, and I don’t have a good sense that any of them on the ground have much of a handle on things. That sudden loyalist retreat from Benghazi, for example, could have beeb forced by an attack by competent insurgent units. No one reported such, but there’s no guarantee the media would have known about even a major battle on the outskirts of Benghazi if it were fought by insurgent units to which they didn’t have any reporters attached. The reporters seem to be tagging along with these ad hoc groups of insurgent activists, so they only know what they are up to, which usually doesn’t end well.

  11. Bonjour Dr. Cole!
    Would you please comment, if you know, about the story circulating about (Voltairenet, Yediot Aharonot, Al Jazeera,…) concerning Kaddafi’s mercenaries being provided him by Israel’s CST Global, their version of Blackwater…?!

  12. Professor Cole could be right with his analysis of a loss of power by attrition. I wish somebody(Chavez come to mind)just gives the Libyan leadership a get out of jail card and the entire “family” makes the move to Caracas. It would be easier for everybody involved.

  13. when I was a soldier, the US Army was able to train illiterate Vietnamese to paint targets with laser designators, in about an hour.
    Maybe there is another reason that the 10th Special Forces is there ?

  14. Please let me again express my full support and admiration for your action re #Libya. Please keep going.
    Btw very disappointed by recent comments from i.wallerstein: expected some more from him.

  15. A few logic problems here:

    1. “NATO says it is against fomenting a civil war.”

    Too late about the civil war. It’s been going on now for weeks, in case you haven’t noticed! The Western Bloc is already intervening in that war.

    2. It’s amazing how much more accurate NATO bombing gets when the writer approves of it!

    3. Kosovo as an example: UN intervention creates a mafia-run, ethnic-cleansing, slave-trading, organ smuggling narco-state.

    4. But the closer example, especially if the Western Bloc succeeds in pressuring some Arab countries to send significant forces, would be the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Regional troops in action, punctuated by the occasional US air strike.

    5. Cole ignores the human angle of Qaddafi’s side of the civil war. Despite the risings, despite the civil war, despite the intervention of the Western Bloc and its pet ICC, despite every threat or inducement to defect, Qaddafi & fils can still retain formidable contingents to fight for him. You would have to be wilfully blind not to see a lengthy conflict resulting from this.

  16. Hello Prof Cole,
    Maybe you have already seen this discussion about the implications of M. K.’s probable defection. From 18:41 on the question is raised what the prospects are and both commentators share the view that the rebels should be more supported and be equipped. A view I share:

    link to

  17. “If we had twenty-first-century representation [in the Security Council], instead of sending a plane to drop bombs, the UN would send its secretary-general to negotiate.” – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula, the 35th President of Brazil

    “The remedy is much worse than the illness. This business of saving lives by bombing is an inexplicable contradiction.” – Uruguayan President José Mujica

  18. “What bad thing would happen if NATO and the Arab League just proceed deliberately and with patience?”

    People in Misrata and a half dozen other Western cities are under intense pressure, they are dying. Time is of the essence.

    It seems that NATO ought to be able, as a minimum, conduct a sea evacuation of people who want to leave Misrata. They also ought not tolerate Gadaffi’s use of heavy weapons there. They can stop the tanks and artillary if they are willing to risk some lost planes. Isn’t their mission to protect citizens?

    Juan, I am generally in agreement with your strategy, but there is a need for some targeted urgent action as well.

    • Misrata is a tragedy but wouldn’t be made better by bombing in an urban area. You do what you can do.

      Cheers. Juan

  19. Here we go again.

    link to

    “Pro-democracy forces in Libya say at least 10 of their fighters have been killed in a NATO air strike on the outskirts of the eastern town of Brega, as the battle rages on for control of the oil port.”

    Which is why I’m very dubious about supporting any Western intervention in civil wars.

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