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Monday, August 22, 2011 

The downfall.

As was always going to happen, there's both a lot of finger-wagging and a fair few mea culpas flying around as Tripoli is in the process of falling. When the end came, it happened suddenly, to the surprise of pretty much all of us: at the beginning of last week there was no indication whatsoever that within 7 days Libya's capital would be all but in the hands of the rebels. There had been advances from the west towards Tripoli, but elsewhere the disparate groupings of what some have been calling the Free Libya Forces still seemed to be either bogged down or unwilling to advance even under the cover of NATO bombing. We will doubtless learn in the coming days exactly what triggered the downfall, how the roads to Tripoli seemed to clear over the weekend and how Gaddafi's loyalists mostly ebbed away.

For now though we should obviously welcome the fall of another tyrant who oppressed his people for far too long. The difficulty, as it always was, is in what comes next. Our policy towards the National Transitional Council has from the outset been one of hope, putting our faith in defectors and unknowns. Recognising the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya just less than a month ago immediately blew up in our faces when the defector Abdul Fatah Younis was murdered, prompting its head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil to sack the entire cabinet. At the moment then someone with little to no authority outside Benghazi and without any colleagues is the interim government in waiting. Quite what the reception will be should he turn up in Tripoli is uncertain; those elements among the rebels who have long refused to be controlled from Benghazi and who have fought their own battles across the country are going to want their sacrifices to be recognised immediately.

This said, I think it's incredibly doubtful that there'll be any significant bloodletting or infighting, at least initially. Unquantifiable though is just how many Gaddafi loyalists/supporters/diehards remain, and there has to be a reasonable number, otherwise the fighting would have pretty much ceased today except for those protecting the leader himself. Instead it's continuing, including outside Tripoli, which in itself is surprising. Whether it will fizzle out when Gaddafi is captured or killed may well be the litmus test. Also unpredictable is whether in the initial vacuum Islamists could take advantage, as al-Zarqawi's group and Ansar al-Islam swiftly did in Iraq. The key differences are that there are no foreign ground forces to target, nor were there any groups on the ground already, excepting the veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq which used to make up the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some of whom joined the rebels.

We are though in a situation which is completely different to that in Egypt especially, and somewhat to that in Tunisia. There the state remained; it was the governments that were overthrown, with the police and civil service staying in place (in Tunisia the army largely took over the role of policing). In Tripoli it's far too early to tell whether the police will return to the streets, nor whether they will be supported by the public. Likewise, it's hard to see it simply being a quick handover from the remnants of the Gaddafi regime to the TNC's interim government. Already some are predicting that peacekeepers might be necessary, if only for a short time; it hopefully won't come to that, although it would be foolish to rule anything in or out at that moment. It again may well be depend on how long this apparent impasse remains, on how determined the loyalists are to continue to fight and on just how they imagine they'll be treated by those they've spent the last few months repressing and killing. It'll quickly become clear just how much planning really has been done by ourselves and others within NATO, and how we'll be helping those we've been fighting on the side of for the last five months.

For despite everything, that is what our intervention has been about: the overthrow of Gaddafi. Ever since the UN resolution was passed, which expressly called for a ceasefire and negotiations, not an operation where we would act as the air force of the rebels, that was the ultimate aim. It was with the very best of intentions, yet it was also an abuse of the UN's authority. True, it was partly about drafting a resolution which wouldn't be vetoed by either China or Russia, fearing that an open intervention to overthrow Gaddafi could then eventually be used to put a stop to their own repressive activities in Tibet or Chechnya, but it was also dishonest, and damages the prospect of the responsibility to protect being invoked when an actual genocide or far worse human rights abuses than the threat of going from house to house in Benghazi occur. At the time we intervened at worst around 2,000 people had been killed following Gaddafi's crackdowns; 10,000+ is now the best estimate. Around 2,200 have also now been killed in Syria, where UN condemnation has been so slight as to be non-existent, partially because of the way in which we chose to interpret UNSC 1973, i.e. it allowed us to do almost whatever the hell we said it did.

Moreover, it was through this fundamental failure to be fully honest that politicians weren't able to give an indication of how long the mission was going to take, meaning some got the idea that it would be a matter of weeks rather than the 5 months and counting it's been, at a cost far higher than was also first suggested. Luckily for the government, despite the stalemate (and please Juan Cole, I hugely admire you, but for a long time it was stalemate) it's worked out reasonably well. The cost hasn't been too high, all the opposition parties stayed on side, and a far from benign dictator, even one who was nominally on our side, has been deposed. The opportunities for businesses, especially the ones the government sucks up to the most and vice versa, are massive, with there already being talk of gas pipelines into Europe. A new government which is both grateful and massively owes us would hardly have been excluded from the calculations prior to our deciding to ready the bombs, even if this was never a war for oil or resources. True, the same was meant to be the case in Iraq, and it didn't exactly go as planned.

Libya though as everyone rightly keeps saying is not Iraq. Those of us who opposed that war and were chided in the immediate aftermath were only later somewhat vindicated. The circumstances here were completely different; the first main objection was that a no fly zone would be ineffective, and while it initially saved Benghazi, for a long period it didn't provide much protection elsewhere until the rebels started working better with NATO. Second was that this was a misuse of the responsibility to protect and that Gaddafi wouldn't carry through on his word in Benghazi. He probably would have done, yet it still most likely wouldn't have amounted to genocide or anything approaching it. If we're going to act militarily to prevent the deaths of the high hundreds to low thousands, where does it end and why some places rather than others? Those being attacked in Syria are asking exactly that. Third is that we didn't know what would come afterwards, and hadn't planned properly for it. Since then the planning has been more public, but it's far too early to tell what will happen next and whether it works out and how effective it was.

Reading back the piece I wrote on the night the UN resolution was passed, it holds up fairly well. Some parts of it were over-optimistic: our intervention was never going to transform attitudes towards the West except in Libya itself; at best the outcome may now take the edge off some of the worst denunciations elsewhere. It also didn't really encourage the uprisings elsewhere; they had their own momentum, or lack thereof. The fall of Gaddafi could yet encourage a resurgence, and will give hope that other dictators responding to peaceful protest with bullets and tanks can be brought down; it may also sadly suggest to those in Syria that they're unlikely to get anywhere without force being threatened by the West, something which is almost certainly not going to be forthcoming. Overall, the intervention in Libya has for now been a good thing; if it remains that way, and it remains a big if, those of us who opposed it have a new case study for next time. We will also have our consciences to examine.

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