Libya: What next?

Last Thursday in the Telegraph, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP – formerly Defence Secretary (April 1992 to July 1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995 to 1997) in the Major administration and currently chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee – wrote an opinion piece, at the end of which he concluded that we should be arming the Libyan opposition.

His opening statement

So far so good in Libya, but what about the endgame? Gaddafi can no longer use his air force because of the no-fly zone. His navy can no longer bombard towns because of the naval blockade imposed under UN authority. His army is losing tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons because of bombing and precision missiles. This is not just a no-fly zone. It is almost a no-combat zone, and all the better for it.

sums up the situation perfectly as it stood up until the opposition forces started advancing once again. A stalemate situation, reached only because Gaddafi’s forces are no match for Western air-power and cruise missiles. Where though is the end game? Plenty of people, including myself, were asking this a week ago when we first got involved.

What possible endgames exist?

1. A long term stand-off a la Iraq and the no-fly zones there;
2. Gaddafi wins; or
3. The opposition wins.

The truth of the matter at the moment is options 2) and 3) are not viable. Gaddafi can’t attack because his forces would be destroyed from the air and his opponents, as demonstrated by their Italian like progress before UN 1973 was enforced, haven’t got the fire-power. That then leaves option 1) – and with the Americans doing their best to at the very least lessen their involvement, if not get out altogether do the European countries have the wherewithal to keep up an indefinite air and naval embargo? I would say no. And when it falters the conflict will reignite and Gaddafi will probably win.

Rifkind is generally in agreement:

A divided Libya would be inherently unstable, as conflict could break out at any time. It is therefore difficult to see how the no-fly zone could be lifted while Gaddafi remains in charge. Otherwise, he would be in a position to resume unrestrained attacks on Benghazi and the east of the country as soon as the allies had withdrawn.

So what is to be done? Withdraw and let Gaddafi get back to doing what he was doing, force him out ourselves as has been suggested or move from conflict prevention to openly aiding the opposition?

Rifkind suggests the latter. He believes that we should be openly negotiating and advising those opposed to Gaddafi on how to form a westernised method of government. He doesn’t use those exact words but

… advice and help on how to create the institutions of government, the rule of law and a free media. That is not only urgently needed, but would help ensure that the ultimate replacement for Gaddafi would be a new government supportive of democratic reform, rather than one willing to install a new secular or religious tyranny.

can mean little else.

Haven’t we tried this before recently, in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Neither of those can be said to be a success story even if Iraq is just about on an even keel albeit with underlying tribal and religious tensions. Afghanistan though is a failure where central government has little or no meaning outside of Kabul and tribal loyalty – to one’s warlord – rules.

The talking however means nothing given the current stalemate so he suggests that we break it by arming the opposition. Again, haven’t we tried that before somewhere? Ah yes, Afghanistan when we were using the natives there as proxies in Cold War against the USSR. I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of precisely how well that turned out.

What do we know of the opposition forces? Wikipedia lists over half a dozen disparate groups which suggests that they themselves are fragmented. Their goal might be clear but if they manage to fulfil it then what happens? A stable government or ethnic and tribal warfare such as has been seen in various hotspots around the world for the last twenty plus years? The former would be nice, the latter more likely as various sides, with ‘victory’ achieved use the vacuum created to settle old scores and create new ones. If somehow a government is formed, then what manner will it take? The competing outside interests of Western, Arabic, Islamic (not always the same thing) and African states will all no doubt try to influence the outcome.

Arming these groups may lead to a short term ‘win’ in the shape of removing Gaddafi but are we just storing up pain for the longer term? If we do arm them sufficiently that they are able to go toe-to-toe with the loyal forces then should we interfere with the ground campaign? If we do we will be actively assisting the opposition in their stated goal of over throwing Gaddafi, creating an unequal playing field and probably causing even more resentment in certain parts of the Middle East and Islamic world. If we don’t and their inexperience leads to them being crushed then we will no doubt have to intervene again to stop the opposition from being utterly destroyed – and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Obviously we should never have interfered in the first place but, since political grandstanding means that we have, the question of where do we go from here needs answering – and quickly. Unfortunately I don’t think it can be and certainly not in any way that can be deemed to be satisfactory.


  1. WitteringWitney says:

    Nice article MG and agree we should not have interfered in the first place. Also, it amazes me that we insist the people should decide their own future yet deny that opportunity at home!

  2. Jess says:

    I agree – its an unholy mess, the lessons of Iraq (1), Iraq (2), Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc aren’t learnt. Every generation of political leadership seems pre programmed to repeat the same mistakes.

    The solution? Turn a blind eye whilst we let Mossad sort it out, then embark on nation building, only for the new nation to hate us for it.

    • Misanthrope Girl says:

      Why interfere at all? It is an internal matter. Stay well out of it and deal with the winner.

  3. PT says:

    Excellent post, fully agree. We should indeed have kept out of it. Unfortunately, after years of our leaders’ toadying to Gadaffi, someone had to burn bridges and start bad-mouthing him when it looked as if he was on the ropes. Therefore, when he then started a comeback, our involvement was inevitable, if only as a face (and oil)-saving measure.