If the dark times for the Libyan Revolution are at an end, the difficult part is just beginning. Not only have the Rebels survived, but thanks to an at-times spotty but ultimately adequate NATO assist, they have thrived, at the time of this writing having seized control of most of the capital Tripoli.
The Libyan Revolution needed all of 4 days to become the indisputably most-violent of the Arab Spring revolutions. Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has ruled Africa’s most-affluent country as an undisputed tyrant since 1969, responded to initial peaceful protests with indiscriminate violence, killing scores in half a week and even ordering his soldiers to fire on the funeral processions for those killed in the previous days’ violence. But when he ordered some army units to put down a mounting uprising in Benghazi the next Monday, a city the size of San Francisco, they rebelled, pledging themselves to the uprising and declaring Benghazi liberated. By Tuesday the Italian Foreign Minister concluded that he found initial reports that 1,000 Libyans had died in just under a week of fighting credible. This is a staggering death toll in the prologue phase of a civil war in a country of just 6.5 million people with 2 major cities.
Through the last week of February and the first few week of March, it appeared that the Rebels had an almost unstoppable momentum. On the road westward from Ras Lanuf to Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi’s hometown and the headquarters of the Libyan Special Forces, the Rebels ran into trouble. Unable to advance into that garrison town, the Rebels helplessly fell back, unable to maintain their supply lines and facing not just suddenly-stiff resistance on the ground but now-withering air strikes from the small and unsophisticated but unchallenged Libyan Air Force. It was at this time that President Obama’s earlier disinclination to apply force appeared to countenance the violent suppression of the Rebel movement as a whole.
President Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring has presented an ungainly parallel for his muted and shifting tact in dealing with the new and very-Conservative Republican majority in the House: In both cases he maintains an appearance of comity and an ability to build consensus with great ease when the basic political situation is favorable and without complications. When he faces a dynamic political environment full of resistance and ideological incongruity, he sometimes seems to lose his voice and to prefer inaction to planting a flag in a torrent. Such a de facto policy of reticence isn’t really prudent, however, as it seems to amount to complicity with the regime being resisted. In the context of the Arab Spring, the difficult weekend at the end of January would have been a perfect time for the President to “get religion” and make an open announcement to Middle Eastern autocrats that their regimes could not survive without opening their political systems in substantive ways. Instead, he seemed to be waiting to see who the victor would be before having a policy. That isn’t always an option in a situation where both parties have the means to gauge a leader’s reaction; civil society also expects a President to take a stand on an issue that, right or wrong, has gained official “crisis” status. This expectation makes a President’s job harder, but it is simply one that must be mastered, even if it exposes a leader to risks. (If leaders weren’t exposed to risks when making a judgment call, everyone could be one.)
In any case, President Obama seemed to have a change of heart about intervention in Libya once it became clear that the revolt couldn’t succeed under its own power. The resolution submitted to the United Nations Security Council passed due to Russia’s and China’s abstention as opposed to veto; this marked a significant diplomatic accomplishment that couldn’t have come any later for the Libyan Revolution. Had they waited 1 more day to prepare a response, Benghazi might have fallen.
The resolution was adopted on Thursday, March 17th; by Saturday, March 19th a French fighter jet destroyed its 1st target on the road to Benghazi. Loyalist troops defending the Gaddafi regime had brought the full-blown civil war to the edge of Libya’s 2nd-largest city but were now forced by a UN-authorized, NATO-enforced no-fly zone to fall back. This NATO operation effectively amounted to the Libyan Rebels’ air force. Within days, Loyalist and Rebel forces were back to contesting for control of Ajdabiya and Brega, oil-export towns to the southwest of Benghazi, rather than for the fate of the Rebel provisional headquarters at Benghazi itself.
This competition went on for months, in retrospect the longest phase of the Libyan conflict thus far. While NATO air power–nominally a no-fly zone but in effect a Western intervention on the side of the anti-Gaddafi Rebels–was sufficient to protect the Rebels from the soon-destroyed Libyan Air Force and Loyalist tank columns, it appeared to be insufficient to root-out entrenched loyalist positions in cities. Through July Gaddafi continued to issue calls for peace talks with the Rebels–though his past history of using calls for cease-fire as ill-conceived feints to press an assumed advantage had met with justified contempt from the Rebels. But around this time a concurrent rebel movement in the mountain villages southwest of Tripoli became increasingly organized, with tribal bands of around 600 fighters apiece prepared for a march on the small cities to the west and south of Tripoli. These broke the seige of long-restive Az-Zawiya, 27 miles west of Tripoli, shortly after the siege of Misurata–a city of over 300,000 that had been effectively surrounded for most of the uprising–was lifted by a combination of Rebel resistance and NATO air strikes against Loyalist positions.
Now the tribal bands from the western mountains and the Rebel expedition force that broke out of Misurata have met in a blood-soaked Tripoli. They appear to have a tenuous control over the city, but the neighborhoods around the now-vacated Gaddafi compound in Bab al-Aziziya in south-central Tripoli and the Rixos Hotel in southeastern Tripoli (where foreign journalists have been holed-up for days) remain hotly-contested if not still under Loyalist control. Colonel Gaddafi has not been found, but is now effectively in hiding.
If the period from around February 16th, when initial protests met with harsh violence, to around March 20th, when the Loyalist counterattack on Benghazi began to fall back in the face of NATO airstrikes, was the existential threat to the Libyan Revolution, then this phase is the hard part for the Libyan Revolution. The Rebels must impose order on a situation in which Gaddafi’s beneficiaries may not be bound by any scruples to stop the fighting. The Special Forces garrison at Sirte still prevents the Rebels in their eastern headquarters from joining the offensive force that is currently taking Tripoli. This federation of tribal fighters has taken on a lot of the burden itself, but it isn’t yet integrated into the Benghazi-based transitional government. And don’t forget the recent assassination of a Rebel leader in Benghazi: The gains of revolution produce scores that must be settled–1 way or another. Daunting as it was, the issues at stake during the uprising were simple: Survive and fight back. Tactical choices were submitted to the most-direct form of appraisal–military victory or defeat. After 1 month of waiting, NATO was there to prevent destruction and to allow the Rebels to press their advantage in Libya’s small and scattered set-piece battles. But the issues at stake now are hard: It is time to assert control over a lawless capital and find a way for many aggrieved parties to pick a legitimate government for themselves. There are always bumps along this road, and one can’t just blame the malice of the enemy and turn to the arsenal anymore.
At least relative affluence, a small population, and a long line of (present but not controlling) Western benefactors should help.