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Foreign Policy

Libya at a Tipping Point

Libya at a Tipping Point

The unrest in Libya is reminiscent of China and Romania in 1989. While the Chinese central government held onto power Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime ended with Ceaușescu and his wife being placed against a wall and executed. The very same fate seemingly awaits Qaddafi.

Libyan rebel fighters with a captured government tank. Photo: Nasser Nouri

While regimes have fallen in Egypt and Tunisia and the government in Bahrain could either fall or remain in power Libya has reached a tipping point. Former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen has ominously warned that reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s actions against Kurds and Shiites during his rule, Qaddafi, Lord Owen warned, “We know this is a person who could unleash either chemical or biological weapons - which he possibly still has - and certainly will not hesitate to use his air force on peaceful protests. It would be impossible for us to sit by if he did unleash his air force.”

With the development that Col. Qaddafi has hired African mercenaries to kill wantonly on the streets of Tripoli he has relegated his regime to the trash bin of history. Even if Qaddafi survives this unrest his rule for the foreseeable future will be tenuous at best. His UN delegation has quit in disgust, various ministers and government officials have resigned and his hold over the country is slipping.

The country’s military, whose loyalties lie more with their ethnic tribes than with the central government, are also abandoning the government in significant numbers. At the moment Qaddafi has few options to save his regime and avoid being “hung from a lamp post” as those opposed to his regime openly hope for. Following Qaddafi’s speech earlier in the week, which has been widely panned except by his most ardent followers, his enemies, those of his regime battling for control of most of the country, might get their wish. In his often-rambling speech to the nation earlier in the week, Qaddafi proclaimed, “Libya wants glory, Libya wants to be at the pinnacle, at the pinnacle of the world.” Col. Qaddafi continued, “I am a fighter, a revolutionary from tents…I will die as a martyr at the end.” In the end he vowed to fight, “to my last drop of blood.”

The world community has universally condemned the Qaddafi government. Secretary Clinton released a statement a few days ago admonishing the Libyan government. In her statement Clinton suggests, “We join the international community in strongly condemning the violence in Libya…The government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly.” The United States is in a difficult position because several hundred U.S. citizens are currently trying to escape the violence by boat because flights are unable to land.

If Qaddafi manages to stay in power his government will be diplomatically isolated. Economically, Libya will still have the opportunity sell Libyan oil on the open market. Currently there are no concrete steps to place sanctions on Libya to prevent this. While the U.N. Security Council has yet to act, Libyan membership in the Arab League has been suspended, announced Secretary General Amr Moussa. Libya at the moment is beginning to resemble Somalia. Qaddafi and his supporters still control Tripoli but not much else of the country. Anti-government forces have assumed control over the critical cities of Benghazi, Misurata and Tobruk and the Egyptian/Libyan border has been abandoned by the government. This development has allowed Western reporters, already in Egypt to report on their revolution over the past month, to enter Libya to report on the violence.

Western reporters like Richard Engel of NBC News, NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Ben Wedeman of CNN are reporting from the Eastern portion of the country but with media access to Tripoli limited there is no definitive way to report on the violence in the capital city. With whole Army units defecting it is not at all clear how much longer the regime can hold on. Additionally, with a lack of media access to critical points in the country like Tripoli, the international community has no idea as to the true extent of the numbers killed by government forces and African mercenaries. Both the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and New York-based Human Rights Watch report that between 233 and 250 people have been killed and Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini places the estimate at approximately 1,000 people who have been slaughtered, many of them unarmed.

It is increasingly apparent that a schism is opening between the government and the Libyan Air Force. After two fighter pilots fled to Malta earlier in the week to escape firing on protesters in Benghazi and two pilots purposely crashed their Russian made Sukhoi 22 fighter jet in the Benghazi desert after parachuting to safety to avoid firing on protesters the government appears to have lost control of an important asset. The use of air assets to strafe and kill civilians prompted Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, Libya’s interior minister to resign. Gen. Abidi told CNN, “Gadhafi told me he was planning on using airplanes against the people in Benghazi, and I told him that he will have thousands of people killed if he does that.” Gen. Abidi speculated that Qaddafi “will either commit suicide or he will get killed.”

When the revolution in Egypt broke out the international community and in particular the United States was able to communicate directly with that country’s military. In Libya few options exist for the United States to pressure the regime to step down or even show restraint. With several hundred Americans effectively trapped in the country the U.S. must walk a difficult tightrope. Saddam Hussein’s regime attempted to use American citizens as human shields to avoid military action and while there are no indications that direct U.S. military intervention is imminent the U.S. is concerned that Americans and Westerners could be used as leverage. Efforts to extricate American citizens from Libya are on track for later this week. A ferry was supposed to leave on Wednesday of this week from Tripoli but was postponed due to bad weather.

For many on both sides of the political spectrum there was general confusion over what the Obama administrations policy is concerning the Libyan regime. Secretary Clinton has been the face of the administration during the crises garnering attacks from political allies and foes that President Obama was not in front of the crises and not condemning the Libyan government in strong enough terms over its actions. President Obama’s address from the Grand Foyer of the White House on Wednesday evening he possibly might be attempted to assuage worries that he is reluctant to confront the Libyan regime directly. Moving forward, the Obama administration would be wise to be more forceful with Qaddafi and attempt to position itself on the right side of history.

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4 comments
Bill Lenton
Bill Lenton

The Libyan people have made it completely clear that Gaddafi must step down. My thoughts tonight are with the Libyan people.

Bill Lenton
Bill Lenton

The Libyan people have made it completely clear that Gaddafi must step down. My thoughts tonight are with the Libyan people.

Sumehra Hussein
Sumehra Hussein

I have lived in the region and found your post well done. I hope President Obama speaks up more forcefully which would offer moral support to the Libyans. Sumehra

Sumehra Hussein
Sumehra Hussein

I have lived in the region and found your post well done. I hope President Obama speaks up more forcefully which would offer moral support to the Libyans. Sumehra