Home > Another stinging blow for Libya

Another stinging blow for Libya

by Open-Publishing - Saturday 30 July 2011

Wars and conflicts International

The killing of Libyan rebel military commander General Abdel Fattah Younes could lead to a violent split inside anti-government forces and comes as a major rebel offensive is failing to produce significant gains prior to the onset of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in August when extremely hot weather and all-day fasts makes warfare very difficult and slow.

The death of the general, whose body along with those of two senior aides was reportedly found badly burnt on Thursday, brings into focus a complex and extensive web of power relationships and rivalries spanning both sides of the conflict. This is evidence of just how fluid the situation in Libya is, with multiple layers of loyalties that can shift in any given moment.

The specter of a North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) ground invasion of Libya, once
frightfully close, has receded. The Western
bravado of just a month ago - when British, among
other officials, were preparing detailed plans of
Libya’s post-Muammar Gaddafi future - [1] has
largely disappeared, challenged by a combination
of events on the ground, the lack of political
will by member states to send troops, and loud
protests from Russia, China and other significant
international players.

As the latest round
of negotiations between Gaddafi, NATO and the
rebels falter, the Libyan civil war is
increasingly turning into a conflict over natural
resources. This means, in part, that both sides
are digging in for a protracted war. Moreover, it
lends support to fears that a factitious civil war
motivated by greed will ensue, like in so many
other parts of Africa.

The consequences
could include the collapse of central authority,
at least in parts of the country, low-intensity
tribal warfare, and the long-term proliferation of
violence in Libya and the region.

The main
alternative is no less frightening: Gaddafi
re-conquers the country and puts down all dissent
with an iron fist. Even that would be a Sisyphean
task, given the massive proliferation of weapons
and the radicalization of the population since the
start of the violence. It took Gaddafi several
decades to fully take control of the country after
the coup that brought him to power in 1969.

News of the death of General Younes came
shortly after the rebel leaders announced his
arrest; subsequently, they clarified that he had
been summoned from the front to be questioned over
suspicions that he had secretly aided Gaddafi. The
murder allegedly occurred while he was on his way
back, and the leader of the group that killed him
was apprehended. As of Friday morning, however, no
further information was released, and there are
several hypotheses about who might be responsible.

Younes, who had unofficially been
considered Libya’s number two after Gaddafi prior
to his defection in February, had been a close
associate of the colonel ever since the coup in
1969. As interior minister, he was responsible for
the brutal suppression of dissent on a number of
occasions over the years, and many rebels
reportedly had persistent doubts about his

The apparent failure of the
recent rebel offensive against the oil town of
Brega, resulting in multiple casualties, seemingly
triggered a new round of suspicions against him.
The rebels blamed many of their losses on
"betrayal by traitors", as one commander told
al-Jazeera 10 days ago. [2]

In early
April, Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha insinuated during
an interview that Younes was still loyal to her
father. Gaddafi also reportedly put a large price
on Younes’ head, so the interview may well have
been an attempt to discredit him inside the rebel
camp, but it is important to note that fleeting
loyalties are a characteristic of the Libyan

Numerous government soldiers
have defected, including senior officials; the
government claims that many rebels have defected
back. During the early protests, Western
journalists were often surprised to see the same
people participating in an anti-Gaddafi protest
one day, and a pro-Gaddafi rally the next one.

It is possible that Younes had multiple
loyalties. This also means that it may not become
clear who was behind his murder for a very long
time. While the rebels have claimed that a
pro-Gaddafi cell assassinated him, many believe
that the rebel leadership was implicated. The New
York Times reports:

[M]embers of his tribe - the Obeidi, one of the largest in the east - evidently blamed the rebel leadership for having some role in the general’s death.

The specter of a
violent tribal conflict within the rebel ranks
touches on a central fear of the Western nations
backing the Libyan insurrection: that the
rebels’ democratic goals could give way to a
tribal civil war over Libya’s oil resources.
Colonel Qaddafi has often warned of such a
possibility as he has fought to keep power,
while the rebel leaders have argued that their
cause transcends Libya’s age-old tribal
divisions. [3]

Some reports speak of
a larger split inside the rebel camp, between
defectors who were long-time allies of Gaddafi and
revolutionaries with a clean past.

Yet in
Libya, a "clean past" is something very difficult
to define. To add to the complexity of the
situation, Younes’ chief rival in the rebel camp
was General Khalifa Hifter, who defected in 1987
and lived in the United States before returning in
March to join the rebellion.

Hifter, who
is reportedly widely trusted by the rebels due to
his "clean" past, is allegedly affiliated with the
US Central Intelligence Agency. This raises the
possibility that the US clandestine service might
be in some way implicated in the assassination.

Add to this that money and resources are
quickly becoming the main goals of the warfare. It
is not a coincidence that the most recent rebel
offensive focused on the important oil town of
Brega in the east. "The battle in Libya is slowly
moving from territory to resources," al-Jazeera’s
Anita McNaught reported a week ago. [4]
has also been a central goal of the Libyan rebels’
diplomatic drive to be recognized as the
legitimate Libyan government by other countries.
[5] They are seeking tens of billions of dollars
of frozen Gaddafi assets abroad, as well as urgent
aid of several billion dollars for military
supplies, salaries, food and medicine.

Some sources go as far as to speculate
that the rebels may be hoping to raise a mercenary
army to fight Gaddafi in the future; while this
information cannot be confirmed, there are many
questions surrounding the identity and the
behavior of rebel forces. Even reports that are
sympathetic to them, such as al-Jazeera’s, reveal
that they are not as democratic and peace-loving
as they are often described as. [6]

United Nations has previously accused them, as
well as Gaddafi’s forces, of war crimes. [7] The
murder of Younes, if it was perpetrated by some of
them, would be a high-profile example of brutal
tactics employed by their forces. If reports
attributing atrocities to them continue to emerge,
this could undermine their international
legitimacy and NATO’s campaign.

In any
case, NATO’, seemingly the only thing that
reliably props up the rebel forces, is on a
strict, if unacknowledged, timetable. Many member
countries are running out of political will and
money to finance the war. Besides, autumn is the
season of sand storms in Libya, when the
effectiveness of air power will be greatly

With the prospects of a ground
intervention in Libya receding, the twin scenarios
of a collapse of the rebel front and a power
vacuum in the country take the center-stage. In
the next month (Ramadan), we can hardly expect the
rebels to defeat Gaddafi by force. After that,
they may lose their main ally.

In a way
until recently an unwanted scenario - the orderly
partition of Libya between Gaddafi and the rebels,
with separate power and economic bases in each
part - is gaining new glitter for the latter. The
alternative - a crushing defeat or a fragmentation
of the rebel forces - with sectarian and criminal
interests taking precedence - is becoming more and
more possible each week that passes. The nightmare
scenario would be a new Somalia on the
Mediterranean cost.

1. Libya
after Gaddafi
, Asia Times Online, 5 July 2011.

2. Libyan
rebels pushed back from Brega
, al-Jazeera, 19
July 2011.
3. Death
of Rebel Leader Stirs Fears of Tribal
, The New York Times, 28 July 2011
(registration required).
4. Libyan
rebels fight for resources
, al-Jazeera 21 July
5. Seeking
to free funds, U.S. recognizes Libya rebels
Reuters, 15 July 2011.
6. Alleged
abuses take shine off Libya’s ’freedom
, al-Jazeera 13 July 2011.
7. Libya
conflict: UN accuses both sides of war crimes
BBC 1 June 2011