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Libya: popular revolt, military intervention

The changing dynamics of the Libyan conflict highlight the contradictions of "humanitarian intervention" when pressed to serve the western way of war, says Martin Shaw.

In mid-February 2011, the protests which began the Libyan revolution seemed to demonstrate the unstoppable progress of people power. It seemed that even Gaddafi’s kleptocratic and personalised regime - which unlike Tunisia or Egypt never allowed space for civil society - might fall to the new mass-demonstration movement. By early April, after an exceptionally swift national and international military escalation, Libya has shown the limits of popular revolt against a regime which is prepared to use all the means at its disposal to prevent change.  

Libya’s escalation to war was so swift that some have even blamed it  on the armed character of the popular movement. This interpretation misses the fact that the Libyan revolution began with Cairo-style peaceful protests, including in Tripoli itself, which the regime instantly met with violent repression, soon escalating to the use of the air-force to bomb opposition-held cities. The desperate plight of civilians in besieged Libyan towns is not the fault of provocative armed militants, but of a regime which will tolerate no loss of control. 

I write this in Barcelona, not so far across the Mediterranean from Libya. Here it is impossible not to remember how, when Francisco Franco turned the Spanish army on the people in 1936, the democratic parties in this city and elsewhere improvised their own militia to defend the Republic; nor how in the subsequent war, Franco called in German planes to bomb the Basque city of Guernica. Spain famously became the great cause of the international left in the 1930s, for whom it was the shame of “the democracies” (Britain, France and the United States) that they did little to help.  

The Libyan opposition has not even had the Spanish advantage of existing state institutions, parties and international legitimacy through which to organise their defence. Not surprisingly, the opposition seems chaotic and militarily unprepared; the role of former regime figures in the leadership also raises doubts about the opposition’s capacity to provide a better alternative. The Libyan opponents of Gaddafi have now, however, the advantage of military support from the same states that failed Spain all those years ago, reflecting the history of growing western and United Nations “humanitarian” intervention since the end of the cold war.  

The balance-sheet of intervention

The practice of intervention has been uneven and - from the point of view of principles - inconsistent. The Bosnian people in the early 1990s, victims of Serbian nationalist aggression, saw little direct military intervention; the United Nations Protection Force was there, as its name suggested, to protect UN humanitarian relief rather than Bosnians. Only after the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 - when war on the ground was already moving against Serbia, and Bill Clinton was facing re-election - did Nato bomb Serbian positions. This was followed by the Dayton conference of November 1995 which ended the war but also obliged the Bosnians to accept the compromise partition of their country.

The victims of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 fared even worse, as the UN stalled intervention until hundreds of thousands were dead. The French - allies of the old Rwandan government whose forces carried out the killing - finally sent forces which saved génocidaires along with victims. In Iraq, the United States turned its back on the popular rebellion of 1991 at the end of the war over Kuwait before being forced (along with Britain and France) to intervene to protect Kurdish refugees; the invasion of 2003 it led was hardly undertaken for humanitarian reasons, and provoked many years of violence. 

It was only over Kosovo in 1999 that Nato used decisive military force to end massacres and expulsions, again by Serbian forces (this time against ethnic Albanians); although this took place without the UN Security Council authorisation that was to be obtained for Libya. But in the classic case of "risk-transfer war", Nato achieved the return of the Albanians to the homes exclusively by means of aerial bombardment; this cost the lives of hundreds of Serb and Albanian civilians while protecting its own military personnel, not one of whom died at Serbian hands. 

In 2011, the popular movements in Bahrain and Yemen seem to be losers from the west’s and the UN’s inconsistencies. Both regimes are US clients, so despite their increasing violence and the correspondingly critical rhetoric of Hilary Clinton, they are unlikely to be on the receiving end of Libya-style intervention. The UN may have adopted the “responsibility to protect” as a norm, and there are echoes of it in Resolution 1973 which authorises the Libya intervention, but it is hardly likely that it will be consistently applied in a principled manner. The civilian victims of Ivory Coast’s conflict, to cite only one case, have had no such protection. 

The Libyan case

Armed intervention is hardly a generally desirable outcome. No one can take satisfaction from the immolation of Libyan soldiers, who probably include conscripts as well as regime supporters. The fact that the United Nations and the west could find no other means than bombing to prevent Gaddafi’s counter-revolution succeeding is deeply depressing.  

An earlier, bolder, non-military international series of initiatives to support the Libyan opposition and people might have averted this outcome. The shallowness of western leaders’ commitment to the anti-Gaddafi effort has been evident from the start (unsurprising, given the western rapprochement with Libya since 9/11 and the eagerness of western governments and companies to do business with the dictator). Nicholas Sarkozy’s gesture of recognition to the revolutionary council in Benghazi would have been more impressive if he had gone there himself (perhaps with Ban Ki-moon), to act as a kind of international human-shield against the Gaddafi onslaught.  

Even in military terms, as Mary Kaldor has suggested, an international peacekeeping force on the ground would have been a more certain means of protecting civilians than bombing from the air. But Sarkozy, David Cameron and Barack Obama could think only of airpower, and waited until the regime had almost won before using even that.  

The appeal of airpower is that, as over Kosovo, it carries minimal bodily risk for western military personnel - and so also minimal political risk for their leaders. In the Libyan case these motives mix with other considerations: the understandable reluctance of the Libyan opposition and the Arab League to see western troops on the ground, and suspicions among the Chinese and Russian of any such move in the Security Council. Airpower thus becomes the lowest-common-denominator solution.  

The limitations of aerial bombing are evident too in the manner of the rescue of two US pilots forced to eject from their plane near opposition-held territory near Benghazi, When two 500-pound bombs were dropped to provide cover while helicopter-planes landed to pick up one of the crew, six Libyan villagers were injured. It is evident that the military’s first instinct was to bomb rather than to search on the ground in collaboration with local forces, even at cost to the civilians who were supposed to be protected. The deaths of around thirteen rebels near Ajdabiya on 7 April 2011 as a result of a Nato air-strike is a further example of the perils of this form of intervention.

It may be that popular Libyan support for the western operation may survive such incidents, as it did among Albanians in Kosovo; but they will damage the operation’s wider credibility, especially among Arabs and Muslims.  

The way forward 

The Libyan intervention is pervaded by contradiction. These western failings are in the end no reason to reject it, for in its absence the bloody triumph of the dictator was certain. For the same reason that an earlier left campaigned for solidarity with Spain, the internationally legitimate action against Gaddafi’s repression is justified in principle, and appears already to have produced important results. 

The regime’s forces were in the early days of conflict on the brink of conquering Benghazi, the country’s second city and opposition capital, with potentially dire consequences for a large urban population. The opposition’s reported fear of the “genocide” of half a million people may have been overstated, but reprisals could well have echoed the notorious Abu Salim massacre in Benghazi’s prison in 1996. The memories of this event, as well more recent brutality in towns recaptured by Gaddafi, underlie the city’s role in the current revolt.

The intervention appears also to have protected - if not yet saved - the people of Misrata, Libya’s third city, from conquest; reports of the brutalities committed there by Gaddafi’s forces emphasise what is at stake. By any standards these are significant achievements which fall within the legitimate scope of the intervention concerning the protection of the threatened civilians. Moreover, the intervention has partially turned round the political situation, and kept alive some prospect (if not a swift one) of removing the Ghaddafi regime.  

These achievements notwithstanding, it is clear that airpower is both insufficient to protect civilians and unlikely to achieve the latent goal of regime change. This implicit goal is hardly reprehensible, since (unlike Iraq) the west and the UN are supporting a popular revolution designed to achieve precisely that. Yet modern political power is primarily territorial, and it is only forces on the ground which can definitively end Gaddafi’s strangehold on Libya’s people.  

The facts that the opposition is militarily weak and the west has foresworn ground intervention underpin the belief that a stalemate (reminiscent of the mid-period of the seventy-eight-day Kosovo war) is already emerging, with the west’s unwillingness to intervene on the ground making straightforward victory difficult.

There is also no obvious compromise, such as enabled Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw to Serbia and survive more than a year after his forces withdrew from Kosovo. Gaddafi has no border to retreat across, and none of his family will ever be acceptable to the opposition; Saif-al-Islam Ghaddafi’s apparent belief that he could supervise a transition seems pure fantasy.  

Yet despite the militarisation of this revolution, and the understandable concerns of Paul Rogers and other analysts, it is not - yet - clear that this will prove a protracted war (see Paul Rogers, "Libya and Iraq: a long war's risk", 7 April 2011). Whatever their “tribal” origins, the Gaddafis are not the Taliban. Their power and wealth depend on control of urban systems (especially Tripoli) and modern extractive industries (which they have increasingly exercised in cooperation with western powers). They are unlikely to reinvent themselves as desert-warriors.  

The outcome therefore must be considered in more than military terms. The big question is whether the new military situation will encourage the political disintegration of Gaddafism. This is mostly viewed in relation to   defections of senior officials from the regime, but a more important question is whether the weakening of the regime opens space for the popular opposition in Tripoli itself to re-emerge.  

The opposition in Tripoli’s working-class suburbs, strong in the first weeks of the uprising, have gone underground in face of the repression. The Benghazi opposition clearly hopes for a virtuous reciprocal action between the military campaign and renewed peaceful action on the capital’s streets. That is far from certain: it is equally possible that (in the short term at least) the Gaddafis use the western intervention to reinforce their repression in there, citing the bombing as a rationale.  

At some point, however, the stalemate will have to break. It should be recalled that the origins of the Libyan crisis lie in the Arab revolution of 2011. It is too early to dismiss the possibilities of change, even if the state of Libyan society and state after the depredations of Gaddafi’s four decades of rule may indeed mean a hard road ahead.

About the author

Martin Shaw is a political sociologist interested in war, genocide and racism, who now works on political change in Britain. His website is here. He is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals(IBEI), professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton, and emeritus professor the University of Sussex. Among his books are The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (2nd edition, Polity, 2015). 

More On

Martin Shaw is professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at Roehampton University, London, and an honorary research professor of international relations  at the University of Sussex. Among his books are War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here

Among Martin Shaw's articles in openDemocracy:

The myth of progressive war” (11 October 2006)

Genocide: rethinking the concept” (1 February 2007)

The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide” (28 February 2007)

The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin”  (6 March 2007)

My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice” (16 March 2008)

Israel’s politics of war” (19 January 2008)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"The Kosovo war: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

"The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland" (10 June 2009)

"Sri Lanka - camps, media...genocide?" (30 June 2009)

"Afghanistan and Iraq: western wars, genocidal risks" (24 July 2009)

"Israeli settlements and ‘ethnic cleansing'" (26 August 2009)

DR Congo: arc of war, map of responsibility” (14 October 2009)

"The Karadzic trial and Bosnian realities" (3 November 2009)

"Sri Lanka: power and accountability" (9 December 2009)

"Britain and genocide" (27 January 2010)

"Nigeria and the politics of massacre" (13 April 2010)

"The Holocaust, genocide studies, and politics" (18 August 2010)

"The politics of genocide: Rwanda and DR Congo" (16 September 2010)

"Iraq, war, and WikiLeaks: the real story" (4 November 2010)

"Street politics, violence, and media" (7 December 2010)

"The global democratic revolution: a new stage" (7 March 2011)


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