It’s a civil war, Jim, but not as we know it

The rebel forces in Libya have not so much won Tripoli as they have tiptoed into a vacuum left by the disintegration of the Gaddafi regime.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

So who’s responsible for the fall of Tripoli? If you believe left-wing commentators, it is NATO and British special forces, who secretly masterminded the final rebel assault on the Libyan capital as part of a plot to re-colonise north Africa. If you believe the supporters of ‘humanitarian intervention’ then NATO certainly helped, by laying waste to much of Gaddafi’s infrastructure, but it was the rebels themselves who made the final push for freedom. And if you believe Libyan observers, many of whom are understandably excited by the momentous events in their country, then NATO forces were a hindrance and only the National Transitional Council (NTC) deserves congratulations for what has happened in recent days.

What all these claims share in common is the idea that some force, whether external or internal to Libya, took decisive political action designed to remove Gaddafi from power and install a new government. From the cynical leftists who imagine that Britain’s SAS plotted the entire march to Tripoli to the somewhat wide-eyed observers who think the NTC is a modern Viet Cong, we are presented with an image of political groupings pursuing clear-cut ambitions through the sweeping aside of Gaddafi. This projects way too much coherence on to what is in fact a very confused and confusing situation. The key dynamic in Libya is not the push for power from rebel groups or the colonial designs of external powers, but rather the disintegration of Gaddafi’s regime. The rebels’ actions and NATO’s ‘strategy’ look more like responses to the corrosion of Gaddafi’s authority, rather than having single-mindedly brought that corrosion about.

Of course, in every civil war the balance between the disintegration of the existing regime and the momentum of the oppositional forces is key. Very often, the withering of a regime’s authority, its public signs of weakness, can act as an invitation to rebel forces to make good on their ambitions and to make a grab for power. But the striking thing about Libya over the past six months, and more explicitly over the past few days, is how skewed this normal civil-war balance has become: nearly everything has been decided by the disintegration of the ruling regime rather than by the ambitions or actions of those who oppose it. It has been the long-coming collapse of Gaddafi’s authority, the exposure of his utter dislocation both from the Libyan people and from reality, which has shaped the emergence and the character of the oppositional movements.

It is true that an assortment of forces have piled into the Libyan theatre in recent months. On the rebel side, a curious mix of political factions has come together in pursuit of at least one, temporary shared interest: the removal of Gaddafi. From former Gaddafi acolytes to the middle classes sick of living under his tyranny to tribal forces, various Libyan actors have joined forces to try to change the nature of their country, politically organising themselves under the umbrella of the National Transitional Council. From outside, NATO forces have launched numerous bombing raids in recent months, attacking both Gaddafi’s compound and his military installations. More recently, it has been revealed that British special forces and ex-SAS men advised rebels about their ‘final onslaught’ on Gaddafi’s forces, while NATO declared a ‘tactical pause’ in its bombing campaign to let the rebels move forward.

Yet this discussion of ‘tactics’ and ‘onslaughts’ should not distract from the fact that this is a civil war in which all sides seem simply to be going through the motions. The most striking thing about the assault on Tripoli is the speed with which most of Gaddafi’s forces ‘melted away’, as one report put it. Tripoli did not so much fall as fall apart. Even Gaddafi’s so-called crack troops, the Khamis Brigade commanded by one of his sons, ‘precipitously collapsed’, according to the BBC. The rebel forces and citizens were reportedly surprised to witness what the BBC called ‘the disintegration of the government’s most feared fighting units’. The much-watched scenes of rebel forces jubilantly trashing Gaddafi’s compound were more a product of their surprise at meeting ‘virtually no resistance’ in Tripoli than they were an expression of their military prowess after having consciously achieved a major goal.

Amongst Western observers there has been much head-scratching over the relative ease with which rebel forces waltzed into Tripoli (though small-scale fighting continues in parts of the city). One reporter asks: ‘Why did battle-hardened Libyan soldiers, fed on a diet of anti-rebel propaganda and willing to fight in the face of overwhelming NATO air power, melt away so suddenly?’ The reason is that, in line with the crises in the other Arab nations, the key dynamic in Libya was the political, physical and spiritual exhaustion of the regime itself, the complete collapse of its authority after 42 years in power and following various local and international political quakes that led to its further isolation and exposure. It was this exposure which brought about the uprising in the first place, which invited the ridicule and protesting of the Libyan people, starting in February 2011 following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Gaddafi’s response to the uprising had the effect of further exposing his regime’s weakness. His use of foreign mercenaries to attack protesters sent a powerful message that he could no longer rely on his own native security forces to prop up his regime. His willingness effectively to allow the east of Libya to be run by a new government, as he focused all his attentions on protecting Tripoli, and really only on protecting his own compound, revealed both his strategic inability and political unwillingness to continue enforcing his writ across ‘his’ country. It was Gaddafi’s unwitting advertisement of his almost Caligulan levels of political wretchedness which empowered the rebel movement. Thus the defection of some of his own men to the rebels became a key factor.

However, precisely because their emergence owed more to the disarray of the Gaddafi regime than to their own strategic or political coherence, the rebel forces seriously lacked internal momentum. They won recognition from external powers, who were also reacting in a kneejerk fashion to Gaddafi’s disarray, but they lacked a self-generated raison d’être or even a plan. The fact of their reliance on Gaddafi’s weaknesses was summed up in the bizarre Battle of Brega-Ajdabiya Road, the only major battle of the civil war. This was a clash between Gaddafi forces and rebel forces for control of the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya and for the Libyan Coastal Highway that connects them. The months-long stand-off was a product of the fact that all it required from Gaddafi to ward off the rebels was the occasional show of pseudo-strength through the launching of missiles. The strange, slow-motion stand-off spoke very powerfully to a truth at the heart of the Arab upheaval: that neither the old regimes nor the loose movements that have arisen in response to the regimes’ weaknesses seems to have the capacity, the moral authority, to make a conscious, coherent play for power. Consequently, the Battle of Brega-Ajdabiya Road looked more like a blinking competition (though with far more serious consequences) than the normal toing and froing of two groups battling it out for political dominion.

There is no doubt that the intervention of external forces made this bad situation worse. The effect of NATO meddling was twofold. First, its justification as an attempt to weaken Gaddafi’s ‘genocidal’ regime in order that the rebel forces might avoid being slaughtered exacerbated the rebel groups’ already-existing tendency to rely on the weakening of Gaddafi, rather than on their own formation of a political aim and a military strategy for achieving it. And second, the Western flattery of the NTC led to the consolidation of the most conservative, Western-compliant elements in the anti-Gaddafi camp, including former Gaddafi loyalists and tribal figures, and the creation of an extremely heterogeneous grouping bonded by little more than a distaste for Gaddafi. It’s hard to predict what will happen once the council’s fleeting shared interest – ousting Gaddafi – has been achieved.

What we really have in Libya is not a civil war as we might once have understood it, but rather the interplay of various forces that lack real dynamism. There is almost an element of performance in the conflict. Gaddafi no longer has the stomach for power but feels the need to issue statements about ‘fighting on’. The rebels are shocked to discover how easy it is to get into Gaddafi’s compound yet their celebrations there are depicted as a ‘major victory’. And David Cameron and other outsiders dubiously claim to be the co-authors of this ‘revolution’ when in truth their interventions were also more a response to events on the ground than the shaper of them. Across the Arab world, recent upheavals have raised the question of power but have also failed to resolve it satisfactorily; they have put on the table the important matter of political legitimacy, but no forces have been able or willing to claim that legitimacy. This is the case in Libya, too, where it is clear that Gaddafi is finished, but it is far from clear who has the moral authority to speak for the Libyan people. Rebel groups are not so much ‘taking power’ as they are walking into evacuated palaces – and when it comes to setting up a new, legitimate and authoritative government, there’s a profound difference between those two things.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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