The giddy prospect of a third “Facebook revolution” in the Middle East, with Libya swiftly following Tunisia and Egypt into a brave new post-autocratic era, is fading from view. The growing military and diplomatic stalemate, both inside and outside the country, suggests efforts to topple Muammar Gaddafi could fail, at least in the short term.
His survival may, in turn, mark the beginning of the end of the Arab world revolt.
Despite daily reports of aerial bombing and ground skirmishes, fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and opposition groups remains sporadic and undirected. After the rebels’ significant early successes in seizing control of Benghazi, most of eastern Libya and some towns closer to Tripoli, their uncoordinated advance has lost momentum and stalled. Talk of a grand march on the capital remains just that – talk.
Gaddafi is strengthening his grip on Tripoli, partly by terrorising its citizens. A new crackdown is expected after Friday prayers. But his efforts to take back opposition-held towns, notably Brega, have also been inconclusive. Regime air attacks, as reported by international media, appear curiously half-hearted and largely inaccurate. And thankfully, both sides’ casualties in the most recent fighting seem to be relatively light, notwithstanding an emotive claim by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, that Gaddafi is “slaughtering his people”.
The military stand-off inside Libya is matched by paralysis outside the country over military intervention. The Americans are hesitant in the extreme. Defence secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly highlighted the risks inherent in any attempt to impose a no-fly zone, as mooted by David Cameron and others. Gates says, rightly, that in order to create such a zone, the US and its allies would first have to destroy Gaddafi’s air force and air defences – in effect, declare war.
These defences are formidable, posing on paper at least a far greater challenge than that presented by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, or the Serbian military in Bosnia – two recent cases where no-fly zones were imposed. They include an estimated 100 MiG-25s and 15 Mirage F-1s equipped with air-to-air missiles and numerous Russian-made Sam ground batteries. Gaddafi can also call on 30 or more Russian helicopter gunships and four Boeing Chinooks. Mostly these assets do not appear to have been deployed so far.
There’s diplomatic stalemate, too. After keeping mum while the crisis unfolded, Barack Obama called on Thursday for Gaddafi to stand down. But the US president offered no clue as to whether he had a plan to force him out, or indeed any plan at all for Libya. At the same time, Washington is rubbishing efforts by its arch enemy, Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader, to set up an international commission to mediate a peace deal.
“You don’t need an international commission to tell Colonel Gaddafi what he needs to do for the good of his country and the good of his people,” said the state department spokesman, PJ Crowley. “He should step aside, and for the good of his people, he should stop attacking them.”
It’s not just the Americans. Neither the UN security council nor the EU has much to offer in the way of diplomatic initiatives. Having condemned Gaddafi, imposed largely symbolic sanctions, and agreed how awful the situation is, they have become spectators.
Individual states such as Britain, France and Italy have launched laudable humanitarian relief operations. But these are stop-gap measures, not solutions. Likewise the Arab League and the African Union, who should be leading the way given their close structural relationship with Libya, issue statements and effectively do nothing. Perhaps, one day, the international criminal court will bring Gaddafi to justice. But don’t hold your breath.
International impotence and division in the face of fast-moving political crises is nothing new. Direct intervention, as in Iraq in 2003 or Kosovo in 1999, is the exception, not the rule, and usually counter-productive. But there is no reason why the international community, including emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil, should not do more to help the Arabs help themselves. The proper channel for such engagement is via the Arab League, which says, for example, that it may impose its own no-fly zone on Libya but lacks capability and expertise.
If Arab reform is to succeed, it needs more victories – and more scalps. Protesters in Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, Oman and elsewhere who, like the opposition to Gaddafi, are pitted against intransigent and occasionally brutal regimes, must be watching Libya’s developing internal stalemate and the disjointed international response with dismay.
The longer Gaddafi hangs on, the faster momentum behind the revolt across the rest of the Arab world may be lost. The overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak raised great hopes for all. Gaddafi’s survival could break their hearts.
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