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Splits over no-fly zone as Gaddafi forces gain ground

World mulls no-fly zone as Gaddafi troops gain ground: time is running out for rebels. India overtakes China as world’s largest arms importer. More civilians fleeing clashes in Ivory Coast as situation spirals towards civil war. Saudi troops sent into Bahrain. South Sudanese leaders pull out of talks amid accusations of northern intervention.
Josephine Whitaker
14 March 2011

British and French leaders today stepped up efforts to win support for a no-fly zone over Libya, where incumbent president Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is waging an increasingly bloody counteroffensive against rebel forces who have lost ground in recent days. The slow pace of diplomatic negotiations suggests that by the time world leaders decide on a course of action, Gaddafi may have already retaken most of Libya, with the likely loss of thousands of lives.

Government advances have pushed rebels back by over 100km in less than a week. The only major city still in their hands outside of eastern Libya is Misrata, which residents and rebels believe has only been spared due to internal fighting amongst Gaddafi’s troops. Government troops have already retaken the small town of Zuwarah, 120km east of Tripoli, and occupied the strategically important oil port of Brega on Sunday. Today, the Libyan air force also reportedly bombed Ajdabiyah, which is the last significant settlement between government forces and Benghazi, the principal site of the anti-Gaddafi uprising.

British Prime Minister David Cameron today told the House of Commons that imposing a no-fly zone over Libya was “perfectly deliverable.” Cameron, accusing Gaddafi of “brutalising his own people,” added that he and fellow European leaders were “crystal clear” that Gaddafi should not remain in power after a meeting of European Union countries to discuss the crisis on Friday. Meanwhile, France has today been lobbying G8 foreign ministers in Paris, as well as UN Security Council members to support the imposition of a no-fly zone.

The Arab League on Saturday announced its support for a no-fly zone, which satisfies the first of Nato’s criteria for a role in policing Libyan air space. It joins the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Gulf Cooperation Council among the international organisations in favour of some form of no-fly zone. The other criteria, set out when Nato discussed military options in Libya, are evidence of the need for its intervention and a supporting UN resolution.

The openSecurity verdict: It is clear that time is running out in Libya. The rapid advance of government troops over the last few days, with their far superior hardware and numbers, indicate that the nascent anti-government uprising cannot hold out much longer. Without international support, Gaddafi is likely to crush the rebellion, and unlikely to show mercy to those who have challenged his authority. This fact is already known to those who are still struggling to retain control of what was only last week rebel-controlled territory. Judging by the pace of international discussions on the most appropriate course of action in Libya, this sense of urgency has not translated across international boundaries.

Still, declarations of support for a no-fly zone have left fundamental questions unanswered. For the question is not just what the international community should do, but how. Cameron’s repeated calls for a no-fly zone do not appear to be backed by concrete plans for how this might be implemented. If the international community decides to impose a no-fly zone, the burden of implementation will most likely to fall to the US, where policy-makers remain divided on the most appropriate course of action.

Other key players in the United Nations and around the world remain wary of putting their weight behind a no-fly zone policy. China and Russia have opposed the idea of a UN resolution and threatened to veto it, but with the Arab League’s backing, it will be more difficult for these two states to outright veto a resolution. Turkey, on the other hand, has declared its opposition to intervention in no uncertain terms. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an international conference in Istanbul that “military intervention by Nato in Libya or any other country would be totally counter-productive.”

But the other tools available to outside powers also have their defects. An arms embargo, preventing foreign governments and arms manufacturers from selling weapons to Libya, is tardy. The Libyan government already has sufficient weaponry to defeat the rebels and keep control of the country, so even if an embargo caused supply problems, it may not be soon enough for the rebels. Referring Gaddafi to the ICC similarly may bring justice, but only after damage has been done. Freezing Gaddafi and his supporters’ assets is likewise not an immediate solution. Sanctions and the isolation usually associated with them are not likely to sway a man who has become accustomed to his status as international pariah, and will also take time to impact on the regime’s capacity and willingness to fight on.

Thus military intervention of some form seems the only immediate means by which to influence the course of events in Libya. This could range from outright invasion, arming and financing rebels, to imposing a no-fly zone. An outright invasion would be costly and difficult, and has so far attracted little support from any quarter. Arming and financing the rebels, while avoiding much of the cost and political risks of an invasion, might expose rebels to the charge that they are merely the agents of ‘Western’ governments - though these accusations have been levelled at the opposition from day one, regardless of actual material evidence. 

Those who oppose its imposition argue, with some reason, that it is already too late. Putting a no-fly zone into practice would require a coalition of the willing, with UN as well as Arab League backing. This would take at least a week to organise, by which point it may be too late to stop Gaddafi.

The legality of a no-fly zone, with or without a Security Council mandate, is inevitably in dispute. Some would argue that Gaddafi, as the head of a recognised national government, should not be summarily ousted by an international intervention force. Following on from this line of attack, critics argue that the rebels who have challenged Gaddafi do not necessarily have more legitimacy than the regime they seek to topple. Yet the surge of anti-government protest that has rocked Libya in recent weeks was inspired but not instigated by outside actors, and opposition demands - the end to an authoritarian regime and a transition to meaningful democracy - are essential and non-partisan.

Still others argue that the international community is motivated to intervene purely out of self-interest. Some analysts suggest that the US wants to use a triumphant intervention in Libya to reassert its international leadership. Given the divisions within Obama’s administration on the wisdom of intervention, this claim is debatable. Slightly closer to the mark is the suggestion that European states do not want another failed state on their border: this is indisputably true, as evidenced by Cameron’s speech in the commons today. But such realists are likely split as to whether Gaddafi’s overthrow or restoration would most quickly normalise the situation.

Illegitimate and ill-advised interventions in Muslim states such as Iraq and Afghanistan should not preclude all future interventions in such states; the presence of oil and the worship of Allah should not be a shield for tyrants, cited by foreign policy critics and regime supporters as evidence of the ill-intentions of outside powers. Libya today is not the same as Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003. The scale of intervention proposed by all but the most extreme commentators is of a completely different order; and the level of support is high in the country concerned and regional organisations of which it is a member. It is unsurprising that such momentous events should lead to a rethinking of European and US policies towards Arab states; while suspicion and criticism of external powers’ past and present motives is warranted, states with the ability to act should not be slaves to consistency.

Where does this leave us? There are certainly problems with the no-fly zone strategy, chief amongst them being the need for speed – which international organisations such as the UN do not lend themselves to. This does not absolve the world of its responsibility to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering the tens of thousands of civilians who questioned his authority and demanded democracy. The use of aerial firepower has already led to, and will certainly lead to more, large scale loss of civilian life. This gives the international community a humanitarian imperative to intervene. Certainly, it is true that hard facts about the level of loss of life and human rights abuses committed by the advancing national army are hard to come by. However, Human Rights Watch reports indicate that there has already been a surge in arbitrary arrests and disappearances in Tripoli, as do the observations of those few journalists who have broken out from the Tripoli media circus that the Gaddafi regime has attempted to trap them in: Alex Crawford in reports from Zawiyah, and the accounts of BBC Arabic employees detained by government forces. There are likely to be more abuses and atrocities as Gaddafi’s army advances.

India overtakes China as world’s largest arms importer.

India has overtaken China as the world’s largest arms importer, according to a new report released by the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (Sipri). India accounted for 9% of all weapons imports between 2006 and 2010, as it seeks to update its security forces and exert influence across south Asia.

With a defence budget of $32.5bn, India imports more than 70% of its arms. With plans to spend more than $50bn over next five years to continue the modernisation of its armed forces, India is likely to remain one of the world’s leading arms importers.

India’s arms imports are driven chiefly by local rivalries with China and Pakistan, as well as a range of insurgencies throughout India’s states, Sipri report. India announced a deal late last year to buy between 250 and 300 fifth-generation stealth fighter jets from Russia over the next ten years. The deal, which could be worth up to $30bn, is believed to be largest in India’s military history.

The Sipri report drew attention to growing competition between arms suppliers for “big-ticket deals in Asia, the middle east, north Africa and Latin America,” with European suppliers such as Britain, France, Italy and Sweden benefiting from government support in the competition.

More civilians fleeing clashes in Ivory Coast as situation spirals towards civil war

Fresh clashes between rival supporters of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and internationally-recognised challenger Alassane Ouattara have forced residents to flee their homes in Abobo district, northern Abidjan, adding to fears that the situation in Ivory Coast may lead to a return to civil war.

According to local reports, dozens fled over the weekend, after an intense gun battle between supporters of the rival leaders erupted outside the home of Gbagbo’s army chief. Residents reported shooting around Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital. Gunmen loyal to Ouattara were believed to control most of Abobo last night. The United Nations estimates that 200,000 people have left Abobo in the past two weeks alone, leaving the district almost empty.

Witnesses report that Gbagbo supporters launched a weekend assault to drive Ouattara’s supporters out of the area. However, Ouattara appears to have distanced himself from those fighting against Gbagbo’s forces. One spokesman said that neither the insurgents in Abidjan, nor the rebels in northern Ivory Coast, where fighting has also taken place in recent weeks, were under his authority.

Presidential elections held in late November 2010 were intended to reunify Ivory Coast after years of civil war. However, after Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Ouattara, widely agreed to have won the elections according to UN-sanctioned results, a tense political stand-off has brought the country dangerously close to war once more. The African Union has made repeated vain attempts to broker talks between the two parties. The latesttmediation efforts ended without progress earlier this week, with Gbagbo refusing to accept an AU proposal for an Ouattara-led unity government.

The UN estimates that 400 people have been killed in post-election violence, while more than 450,000 have been displaced from their homes. Some 90,000 have fled into neighbouring Liberia. As the crisis spirals towards all out war, it raises difficult questions about the role of the African Union and the wider international community. No party has yet been willing to eject Gbagbo by force, despite the fact that he is widely recognised to have lost November’s poll.

Saudi troops sent into Bahrain

Around one thousand Saudi troops have been sent into Bahrain to help the government of this tiny Gulf state secure government facilities after weeks of protest against the Sunni-dominated monarchical government. Bahraini television today showed footage of armoured cars pouring across the causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates has also sent 500 troops into Bahrain. Nabeel al-Hamer, former information minister, confirmed reports of the arrival of Saudi troops, saying that “forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council have arrived in Bahrain to maintain order and security.”

The move comes after a particularly restive weekend in the capital, Manama, which saw some of the most pronounced unrest since anti-government protests began several weeks ago. Police used tear gas to disperse protestors blocking roads in the city’s main financial district, and fired rubber bullets in an attempt to clear Pearl Square, the focus of many of the protests.

Opposition groups have been quick to condemn the move. According to Wefaq, one of the country’s dominant Shia parties, “we consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain to confront the defenceless Bahraini people puts the Bahraini people in real danger and threatens them with an undeclared war by armed troops.” Local human rights groups have also condemned the government’s invitation to foreign troops as further evidence of its repressive tactics.  

After the weekend’s unrest, crown prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa reiterated the government’s offer of a process of national dialogue. Yesterday, the prince offered assurances that the opposition’s key demands would be addressed, including giving more power to parliament and reforming electoral districts.

The arrival of Saudi troops marks the Kingdom’s emergence as a regional policeman and bulwark of incumbent regimes against the forces of change acting in the region. It also raises further awkward questions for the world’s principal arms exporters, for whom the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, are significant clients.

South Sudanese leaders pull out of talks amid accusations of northern intervention

The leaders of South Sudan have suspended talks on independence with the ruling northern National Congress Party after accusing the government of planning to overthrow southern administration. Secretary General of the ruling southern Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amun, yesterday reiterated accusations that the Khartoum government was arming local groups to undermine the credibility of the government in Juba, led by Salva Kiir. "They [the north] have stepped up their destabilisation of southern Sudan by creating, training, and arming and financing various militia groups in southern Sudan," Amun said yesterday.

The accusation comes just days after anti-government rebels are reported to have attacked Malakal, the capital of South Sudan’s Upper Nile state. According to local media, at least 49 people were killed and fourteen injured.  The Associated Press quoted an unnamed UN official saying that during the attack on Malakal, rebels took over 100 children hostage and used them as a human shield during intense fighting.

A series of anti-government attacks in South Sudan after southerners voted almost unanimously in favour of secession from the north in January have been led by former members of the southern government. Government officials in the south suspect Omar Hassan al-Bashir, leader of the NCP and president of northern Sudan, of supporting rebel groups in the south.

Seventy were killed and three villages razed in two days of clashes earlier this month in oil-rich Abyei province, on the border between north and south Sudan. Abyei, which should have held a plebiscite on whether to secede with the south or remain part of the north earlier this year has seen ongoing tensions between the Dinka Ngok tribe and nomadic Misseriya Arabs.

Talks on Abyei’s future were set to resume today. However, as clashes intensify, prospects of a peaceful transition to two independent states look less and less likely.

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