Blogging will be very light during the rest of Holy Week, but I do want to say a few things in connection with Nicolas Pelham’s very thorough report on Libya in The New York Review of Books. Pelham gives a good summary of the last month’s events, and it is generally a very balanced account. It should also make war supporters reconsider the virtues of a cease-fire.
One of the first claims that supporters of intervention in Libya made is that the country wasn’t really split, and it was wrong to call this a civil war. It was simply a popular uprising against the ruler and his family. Interventionists said that the overwhelming majority of the country was against Gaddafi. If that was ever true, it does not appear to be so now. Pelham writes:
And while the rebels have had much Arab support, the Great Leader continues to win backing further south. Central Libya’s tribes, including the Oulad Suleiman and the Warfalla, which hitherto stood on the sidelines, have now actively intervened to prevent the rebels from pushing west [bold mine-DL]. The migrants from Chad and Mali on whom Qaddafi long ago bestowed passports are also repaying his favor with their loyalty.
With both sides increasingly dependent on foreigners to fight their battles, the war is incrementally burgeoning from an intra-Libyan struggle to a war of north versus south. The towns on the Libyan coast that seek allies against Qaddafi from across the Mediterranean are increasingly at war with a hinterland seeking to tighten its ties in Africa across the Sahara.
One of the assumptions that backers of the Libyan war have been making is that Gaddafi’s part of Libya can be starved of resources and his support will melt away as a result. While sanctions are undoubtedly making things much more difficult, Gaddafi’s neighbors have no great interest in seeing him fall, and it seems likely that they are not going to make much effort to enforce sanctions. Transitional Council claims that Algeria is funneling mercenaries and fuel into the country may or may not be true, but it certainly makes sense in light of Algeria’s strong opposition to the intervention. If Algeria is actively aiding Gaddafi, he has a better chance of outlasting NATO than most people seem to assume. The countries that border Libya and have the most at stake there have always been skeptical of or hostile to outside intervention. To find significant “regional” support for attacking Libya, one has to go quite a distance from Libya’s own region.
Pelham’s entire account is worth reading, but one detail he includes that I have not seen anyone discuss very much is the factor of weather that will limit NATO operations severely in the coming months:
The sandstorm season in Libya is fast approaching, and with it the prospect of protection from NATO bombing. Under its cover, the colonel could yet send his pickup trucks, disguised with rebel flags, into Benghazi. Diplomats who had earlier said they were coming to stay are making contingency plans to flee within an hour’s notice, waving goodbye to free Libya.
According to this travel guide, sandstorm season begins in May and continues through June. As far as I can see, the only good news about this for NATO and the rebels is that the sandstorms during this time of year are reportedly so bad that “they curtail all outdoor activities.”
Pelham mentions the approaching sandstorms to argue that Western governments should do more to secure a cease-fire, and he reports that there are some in eastern Libya eager to see more Western support for a cease-fire:
Some who had fumed against any accommodation with Qaddafi now ask why Western powers are not more vigorously pursuing a cease-fire, or even some form of reconciliation, which might let them preserve their current holdings in the east.
The rebels certainly have the most to gain from a genuine cease-fire, and this is what the rebels’ Western patrons should be trying to achieve. Turkey is probably the best mediator for such a deal. As a NATO member that still has diplomatic relations with Libya, Turkey is a better mediator than any of the other likely candidates. A cease-fire would allow more humanitarian aid to reach Misurata, and it would give the rebels a respite from being attacked there and in the east. Supporters of the Libyan war have taken for granted that time is on the side of NATO and the rebels, but looking ahead to the next few months that doesn’t seem to be the case.