The United Nations Security Council’s rare – and unusually swift – decision to approve “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Muammar Qaddafi’s regime has lifted the hopes of Libya’s ragtag militias.
It remains uncertain, however, whether Resolution 1973 can shift the momentum in rebels’ favor after a week of pummeling that brought loyalist forces within 90 miles of their power base in Benghazi.
Libya had declared a cease-fire in compliance with the UN resolution. But the mercurial Qaddafi, who has served longer than any other Arab leader in power and has vowed to fight to his “last drop” of blood, is almost certain to test the willingness of UN members to make good on their March 17 decision.
The immediate hope of France and Britain, who have taken the lead in insisting on protecting the Libyan uprising, is that the threat of action alone will slow Qaddafi down – and perhaps sow doubt in the minds of some of his supporters that they’re backing the right horse.
“A lot of people are marginal supporters and ... they may turn against him,” says Paul Sullivan, a Libya expert at Georgetown University in Washington. “My gut feeling is there will be enough pressure externally to change the tide slowly at first, and then more and more people will jump on board.”
Both countries, and the United States, have the aerial and naval assets to strike Qaddafi’s airfields and air defenses. They could also target his ground forces if they began to push farther east.
Rebel flip-flop on international help
The rebellion – emboldened by protests in Tunisia and Egypt – has had a split personality over international aid. In the early days of the uprising, rebels provided consistent, almost insulted, denials that they needed any international support.
As the situation darkened – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that at least 1,000 Libyans had been killed so far – armed international intervention was seen as necessary to head off a massacre. In the early hours of March 18, Benghazi residents celebrated the passage of the UN resolution on city streets still lined with billboards saying, “No to international intervention. The Libyan people can do this on their own.”
“Hit his tanks, hit his planes, hit him in Bab al-Aziziya,” says young militiaman Ibrahim Abu Bakar, referring to the area of Tripoli where Mr. Qaddafi makes his home. “He’s shown he’ll kill as many of his people as he can to stay in power.”
But an air strike that kills Libyan civilians – or perhaps one that mistakenly targets the rebel militias, who have a fondness for aimlessly firing their weapons into the air – could shift that mood again.
And in word, if not in spirit, the resolution calls for an end to hostilities on both sides. Members of the transitional rebel government in Benghazi have been trying to figure out how to contain the euphoria of their young militiamen, hundreds of whom were vowing to start marching east again after the UN announcement.
“We need to take a breath, to give the international community time to line up its communications with us, and get better control of our own forces,” says one adviser to the transitional government. “The international community has said it’s going to stop Qaddafi, not that it’s going to remove him from power.”
Shelling and attacks continue
Qaddafi’s moves in the coming days will likely determine the extent of international action. But in the hours around the UN resolution, there was a string of conflicting threats, promises, and claims from the government that made it difficult to parse his immediate intentions.
On Thursday, Libya’s Defense Ministry promised acts of terrorism on civilian and military shipping in the Mediterranean if the UN decided to act. Qaddafi himself promised “no mercy” for the rebels in Benghazi, describing them as foreigners and traitors.
Within hours of the UN announcement, Qaddafi resumed shelling the western town of Misratah, one of the last rebel holdouts near Tripoli. The next morning, residents of Ajdabiya – the eastern town whose siege galvanized the international community into action – said they were once more under attack.
On Friday, Moussa Koussa, Libya’s foreign minister and longtime spy chief, who is probably Qaddafi’s most influential adviser outside his family, said Libya was declaring an immediate cease-fire in compliance with the UN resolution.
But even as Mr. Koussa – a regime “fixer” who has often acted as a go-between for Qaddafi with the US and Europe – insisted that the government had the utmost respect for human rights and protecting civilians, residents of Misratah and Ajdabiya said assaults on civilian neighborhoods continued.
Koussa also criticized the UN decision and its “strange ... use of military power.”
“This goes clearly against the UN Charter,” he said.
'This is the endgame for Muammar Qaddafi'
Security Council members were divided on whether to approve a no-fly zone, let alone the more robust mandate for intervention that was ultimately approved by a vote of 10-0, with abstentions by Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Germany. Western powers are leery of another Middle East conflict, particularly after the bloodshed in Iraq after the US-led invasion of that country in 2003.
“No one is talking about ... boots on the ground,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Arab League, a strong opponent of the Iraq war, also came out in favor of action to stop Qaddafi.
Even among regional dictators, Qaddafi is unpopular. Neighboring Egypt has long had tense relations with Qaddafi, and rebels in Benghazi say the country had begun to allow small arms shipments to flow through its territory to the uprising.
“I was on the way to pick up some guns in Egypt when the UN voted,” says an elderly doctor who’s working with the rebels. “I turned my car around and came straight back to Benghazi. It looks like we have far more powerful help now.”
Qaddafi, too, is feeling the combined power of the Arab world and multinational sanctions, says Professor Sullivan. “I think this is the end game for Muammar Qaddafi.”