Libyan opposition military chief Abdel Fatah Younis was assassinated by fellow rebels on Thursday, elucidating factional fault lines that NATO fears could jeopardize its mission, especially given the fact Gaddafi now controls 20% more territory than he did five months ago.
NATO took a significant risk when it decided to support the Libyan rebels knowing simmering tribal rivalries could divide the movement at anytime. However, the allies thought the rebels would remain unified by the common goal of dethroning Gaddafi and hoped internal feuds wouldn’t erupt until after the fall of Tripoli.
Younis had a close 40-year relationship with the Libyan dictator before defecting to the rebel movement, although many rebels accused him of being a Gaddafi loyalist. Younis was reportedly killed by a member of the Islamist-led faction “Feb 17 Martyrs Brigade” who claimed to have evidence that Younis was a traitor.
The account of Younis’ death raises a number of questions. The TNC claimed that after asking Younis to come to the rebel de facto headquarters in Benghazi the general was killed en route by unknown gunmen. Many found this hard to conceive because the general usually traveled inside an armored car in a convoy with 30 guards.
Younis’ death caused an outcry from clan members of his Obeidi tribe, one of the largest and most influential in eastern Libya. Obeidi tribal members shot out the windows of the hotel where the late-night press conference announcing Younis’ death was held, shouting that the rebel authorities had killed him.
The eruption of tribal animosities within Benghazi is a blow to the TNC’s self-image as a unifying movement focused on bringing freedom and democracy to Libya.
The timing of these internal fissures couldn’t come at a more dire moment, because on the ground militarily it doesn’t look good for the NATO-rebel alliance. Despite more than four months of NATO airstrikes and the defection of a number of senior Gaddafi commanders, the rebels have failed to secure any military advantage.
The rebels are short on fuel, food, weapons, ammunition and money. Earlier this week U.S. chief of staff Adm. Mike Mullen even conceded that NATO had got itself into a stalemate.
Experts doubt NATO has the political will to continue an extensive bombing campaign that has become unpopular on the home front. And it’s highly unlikely they have the stomach to put boots on the ground and wage the type of urban warfare that will ultimately be required to extirpate Gaddafi from Tripoli.
As a result of Gaddafi’s resilience, NATO’s stance has dramatically shifted. French and British leaders have struck a more conciliatory tone, now hoping for a negotiated settlement, and have even suggested Gaddafi could stay in Libya if he cedes power.
This, however, was complicated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) warning that the arrest of Mr. Gaddafi to stand trial for war crimes was non-negotiable. Gaddafi’s resistance to step down has already been bolstered by the ICC’s indictment of him in June, which NATO sought to legitimize its humanitarian bombing campaign.
If the ICC relents and provides amnesty to Gaddafi it will incentivize the Libyan dictator to seriously consider NATO’s proffered solutions. But the court’s resent positioning makes a peaceful resolution to the conflict even more unlikely.
Jonathan Steele wrote in the Guardian how the current dilemma can be partly attributed to Western leaders “over-personalizing” the issue by making a pariah of Gaddafi and reducing the conflict to a Manichean struggle between good and evil. At the outset it was politically popular for NATO leaders, Obama included, to demand the tyrant be removed, as if to make up for the Western powers being on the wrong side of history in the other Arab Spring revolutions. Now, NATO wants to lend the appearance that they are behind “the people”. Unfortunately, this isn’t Egypt or Tunisia.
The rebel forces have also been accused of atrocious war crimes by the UN. Not to mention they are also reportedly being led by Al Qaeda elements, many of whom fought against coalition troops in Iraq. These factors, in combination with the Younis assasination, make it awfully hard for NATO to depict toppling the “evil” dictator as some sort of moral crusade.
In fact, journalist Adrian Blomfield fears an outright rebel military victory will open up a power vacuum that could lead to retributive attacks, catastrophic tribal bloodshed and even the disintegration of the Libyan state. And, according to Steele:
But the Libyan crisis is not a battle between a big man and “the people”. It is a complex struggle over modernity, constitutionalism, and the equitable distribution of resources in which Libya’s regions, tribes and social classes all have different demands and stakes. Unless amnesty is part of any negotiated settlement, there are many people in Tripoli who will resist the rebels by force even if Gaddafi himself shows a readiness to step aside. Others fear instability or that they and their capital city will be punished if the rebels win outright. The excessive de-Ba’athification process in post-Saddam Iraq set a bad precedent.
Although Gaddafi is also running low on fuel and funds, even the rebels admit there are no signs he is ready to abdicate anytime soon. Whether NATO likes it or not, Gaddafi has the leverage, and unless the ICC is willing to compromise, Libya is in for a very long and brutal civil war.