Can US Libya strategy survive the assassination of rebels' top general?

The assassination of Gen. Younis is a major challenge to the rebels – and to the strategy of the US and others who recognized the rebels as Libya's government and must stay the course.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Libyans shout slogans at the rally outside the Tibesti hotel in the rebel-held Benghazi, Libya, Sunday, July 31. The rally was held to pay respect to Libyan rebels' slain top general Abdel Fateh Younis.

The intrigue and unanswered questions that continue to swirl around the assassination last Thursday of the Libyan rebels’ top general are raising questions about the control the rebels have over their own movement.

At the same time, the rebels’ turmoil casts fresh doubt in some eyes on the wisdom of the United States, Britain, France, and more than two dozen other countries, who officially recognized the rebel governing body, the Transitional National Council (TNC), as Libya’s legitimate government.

The assassination of the chief of staff of the TNC’s armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fateh Younis, was just as murky Tuesday as when it happened. Rumors are proliferating as to whether the killing came at the hands of rebels suspicious of General Younis’s loyalties, disgruntled tribesmen, or a cell of loyalists to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi tasked with taking out the former Qaddafi confidant.

One theory postulates that the killers received orders embedded in reports on Libya state television in Tripoli.

About the only undisputed point is that the Younis assassination reveals the tenuous control the TNC maintains over its forces, as well as over events in its capital of Benghazi on Libya’s eastern edge.

Yet as true as that may be, the international community has little choice but to stick with the path it’s chosen and continue to work with the rebel government, some regional experts say.

“This is a major challenge for the TNC, and the Libyan rebels are going to have to prove to the wider world that they are more than the collection of their fractured and fragmented parts,” says Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.

Still, he says, the US and other members of the international community have little choice now but to stand by the TNC in its war with Mr. Qaddafi. The West in particular settled on “regime change" in Libya, Mr. Danin says, a decision that does not allow for easy backtracking.

“Once the [Obama] administration and NATO decided that their objective was not just humanitarian support but clearly to try to topple Qaddafi, then you’re in a different world,” says Danin, a former National Security Council adviser for the Near East and North Africa during the Bush administration.

Indeed, the Younis crisis did not dissuade France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, from releasing more than $250 million in frozen assets to the TNC’s envoy to Paris Monday. The TNC has committed to using the funds for humanitarian and other nonlethal purposes.

Mr. Juppé also informed the TNC envoy, Mansour Seif al-Nasr, that as the representative of the Libyan government France now recognizes, he is free to set up shop in the Libyan Embassy in Paris.

After months of complaining that it was about to go broke, the TNC is now raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in unfrozen Libyan assets. Just last week, Britain announced its official recognition of the TNC as Libya’s sole legitimate government and the release of some $150 million in assets.

The US in February froze some $30 billion in Libyan assets, and is now working on legislation to free up at least part of that sum to provide to the TNC for humanitarian assistance.

Some experts are cautioning that a young and divided opposition government like the TNC can hardly be expected to know how to effectively and efficiently use the hundreds of millions and potentially billions of dollars falling into its hands.

A panel of experts assembled last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington concluded that too much money for the TNC could end up being as big a problem as too little. “The paucity of cash in eastern Libya has helped nurture a culture of volunteerism and broad public engagement,” the group said. “Too much cash at the center will likely lead to centralization and patronage.”

In what could hardly have been music to NATO’s ears, the 50 government and think-tank experts also concluded that while “change” will come to Libya in the form of Qaddafi’s departure from power, it could take as long as two to three years for that to happen. (NATO’s last public estimate several weeks ago was that Qaddafi would be out before October.)

The CFR’s Danin says the prospects for a drawn-out war to oust Qaddafi, coupled with the lack of standing institutions that a new government like the TNC will be able to count on, means the international community is engaged in Libya for some time to come.

“All the problems we’re seeing now are further reminder that even when Qaddafi goes, we won’t be able to just pick up and leave,” he says. “To some extent, the international community has committed to nation-building in Libya.”

And while the approach President Obama has taken means the US is less engaged than the British and French, Danin says the US will still be on the hook once Qaddafi goes.

“No one should have the illusion that we [the US] aren’t in this,” he say. “We are.”

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