The Gaddafi regime’s “last stand” mentality

Will the referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court backfire?

On 26 February, the UN Security Council passed a hard-hitting resolution designed to send a clear message to Muammar al-Gaddafi and his regime. As well as an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo, the UN took the unprecedented step of requesting that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate possible war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by Colonel Gaddafi and his forces.

Such a resolution might be expected to persuade most sane leaders to desist from extrajudicial killing, but Colonel Gaddafi is not your average leader. Several days on, it seems that not only did the message fail to stop the violence, but that it may be having the opposite effect, persuading members of the regime in Tripoli that they have no option other than to fight for their survival.

With the attention of the world focused on North Africa and the Middle East, the escalating violence in Libya presents a very public test of the international community's commitment to prevent crimes against humanity. With calls for international action becoming louder, the UN Security Council was stirred into action, passing a landmark resolution, the first of its kind to make unambiguous reference to the principle of "responsibility to protect".

In 2005, following its failures in Rwanda and Kosovo, the UN General assembly adopted the principle of "responsibility to protect", intended to provide a new level of international consensus that would allow swift action to prevent future atrocities. However, repeated failure to intervene in places such as Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka, combined with widespread post-Iraq cynicism toward all forms of so-called humanitarian intervention, suggested the principle might never be put into practice.

And then along came Libya.

While it was always unlikely that Gaddafi, who had already announced his intention to "fight until the last drop of blood", would be unduly bothered by a threat of referral to the ICC, it was hoped that members of his regime – most significantly the military – might take this loss of impunity more seriously. Indeed, Resolution 1970 allows for individuals thought to be responsible for attacks against civilians or human rights abuses to be nominated for addition to the ICC's charge sheet.

But, rather than encouraging the military to turn on Gaddafi, generals and soldiers who had already been involved in putting down the protests may well have been forced into the same "last stand" mentality as their leader.

This is not to say that Resolution 1970 was unwelcome, nor that the principle of responsibility to protect is unimportant. The international community should have an obligation to step in where states manifestly fail to protect their populations. The asset freeze and arms embargo will impact on Libya, but their effect will be slow and experience has shown that sanctions may cripple a nation without necessarily bringing down its governing regime.

Despite Robert Gates's description of it as "loose talk", contingency plans for some form of military intervention are no doubt being drawn up. The imposition of a no-fly zone would need to be authorised by the UN Security Council, and this is looking more possible following the recent shift in the French position and support from the Arab League. Whilst a no-fly zone would not prevent killing on the ground, it would stop aerial attacks by the Libyan air force and prevent weapons and other supplies from reaching Gaddafi's security forces.

The current situation in Libya remains turbulent and unclear. There are indications that a UN humanitarian team may be allowed into Tripoli, but in the meantime the violence continues. As each day passes and more blood soaks into the sand, the harder it will be for a post-conflict Libya to put itself together again. Bloody internal conflicts – be they in Iraq or Rwanda, Yugoslavia or Indonesia – leave indelible scars on nations and festering resentment among their populations.

The international community may struggle to find consensus as to the best way to prevent further bloodshed in Libya, but whatever action or inaction they choose, will be watched carefully by policymakers and dictators around the world. The success or failure of international action on Libya will no doubt shape future forms of humanitarian intervention and help determine how the principle of responsibility to protect can be put into practice.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and Middle East/Africa analyst.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.