Arab Spring: The Libya Lesson

21 January 2015

Measures taken by governments to quell Arab Spring revolts “caused the international community grave concern.” But no other country became the subject of a “UN sanctioned” intervention except Libya. The following may help explain why:
• Qaddafi had few friends if any. Western leaders put up with him for economic interest.
• Libya was very close to Europe and an easy target for military intervention. Involvement of Muslim countries was not needed.
• A successful operation in Libya was also deemed desirable by the French and British governments for internal/external political purposes. After some hesitation the US joined them.
• Libya is an oil-rich country and regime change was expected to create a better environment for foreign investment.
Libyan dictator’s violent reaction to the protests and his unbalanced statements gave the West an opportunity. Under those circumstances France, UK and the US could immediately present a draft resolution to the Security Council but the lesson from the Iraq and Afghanistan military interventions led them to seek other instruments of international legitimacy to pave the way.
Thus, the Arab League adopted a resolution asking the Security Council to declare a “no-fly zone” over Libya. This was essentially an act of self-defense to show that the Arab League countries advocated change, at least in Libya. African Union and Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned Qaddafi for the violence.
On 17 March 2011, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 which,
• Demanded immediate ceasefire and an end to all violence;
• Called for the facilitating of a dialogue to lead to political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution; (BBC’s initial analysis of this was the following: ”This indicates that a final settlement to the crisis in Libya must be political and reached by the parties to the conflict themselves.”);
• Authorized member states to take all necessary measures to protect civilians while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory;
• Decided to establish a ban on all flights in Libyan airspace.
On 19 March 2011, a day after the adoption of Resolution 1973, a conference in Paris, held under French, British and US leadership, decided to start air operations against Qaddafi’s forces to protect the civilians. Within hours air strikes began. It soon became clear that the purpose was regime change.
In a joint op-ed published in mid-April in the International Herald Tribune, Le Figaro and the Times of London, President Obama, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron stated the following:
Our duty and our mandate under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Qaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power… It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government. The brave citizens of those towns that have held out against forces that have been mercilessly targeting them would face a fearful vengeance if the world accepted such an arrangement. It would be an unconscionable betrayal…
“Furthermore, it would condemn Libya to being not only a pariah state, but a failed state too… Neither Europe, the region, or the world can afford a new safe haven for extremists.
“… so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds. Then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders…”
The force with which these operations were conducted caused discomfort in Arab capitals which probably expected that Resolution 1973 would be vetoed by Russia and China whereas they abstained. These two countries, both permanent members of the Security Council, also expressed concern over the scale of air strikes. (It is worth recalling that Brazil, India and Germany also abstained.)
Operations which were started by a coalition of the willing were later taken over by NATO.
The Libyan opposition received arms and military advice from abroad.
One may fairly say, therefore, that Resolution 1973 went beyond what the Arab League intended, and its implementation went beyond its letter and spirit.
It was out of question that Qaddafi could stand such an assault. On 20 October 2011 he was caught and killed by the rebels in a way that did not exactly befit the “democratic spirit” of the uprising.
It has been over three years since Qaddafi’s demise but Libya is still in search of stability. Militants can hijack a prime minister. Libyan arms find their way to terrorist groups in Mali. Libya’s National Assembly has voted to make sharia the basis of all legislation. Fighting is raging. Libya is increasingly seen as a failed state.
Qaddafi was a tyrant of the worst kind. Yet, with military intervention authorized by the Security Council, “the international community” could make one final attempt for a political solution. More Libyan lives could have been saved. The culture of vengeance among different groups could have been discouraged. Libyan arms could have been handed over to the legitimate security forces of the new regime. And most important of all, the Security Council could have taken a different attitude towards the Syrian civil war.
This is why I was so impressed by President Obama’s frankness when I read what he told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in August 2014.
He said:
“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day,” said Obama. “And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. … Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria. … And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. … So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after? ”
President Obama confirmed “the lesson” in yesterday’s State of the Union Address when he said that the US will risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts when the first step to a challenge is sending the military.
Indeed, Libya is becoming another Syria and as the Iraq experience shows, even “going in full force” may not be a solution…

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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