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[Omar Ashour] The West needs to protect Libyans

LONDON ― “I am a glory that will not be abandoned by Libya, the Arabs, the United States, and Latin America ... revolution, revolution, let the attack begin,” said the self-described King of African Kings, Dean of Arab Leaders, and Imam of all Muslims, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. The statement summarizes the Libyan regime’s extremely repressive response to the popular uprising against Gadhafi’s 42-year dictatorship.

But Gadhafi’s tactics have boxed him in. Should he be defeated, finding refuge abroad, as Tunisia’s former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali did, will be difficult. And internal exile, such as that currently afforded Hosni Mubarak, will be impossible.

Although the regime’s capacity to commit large-scale massacres has shrunk, Gadhafi’s defeat will come at a high cost in terms of human life. In an extreme scenario, the regime could use chemical weapons, as Saddam Hussein did against the Kurds of Halabja in 1988, or it could launch an intensive aerial bombardment campaign, as Syria’s Hafez al-Assad’s did in Hama in 1982.

At that point, international intervention would be more likely than ever. One and a half million Egyptians and many other foreign nationals, including British citizens, are in Libya and now are in an extremely vulnerable position. In his first speech during the crisis, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the Colonel’s supposedly “moderate” son, alleged an international conspiracy against the regime, involving Egyptians, Tunisians, and other foreign agents. The response of father and son has been to incite violence against foreigners.

Another possible scenario is a move by the army, or a significant part of it, against Gadhafi and his sons. The problem is that the Libyan army has not been able to act cohesively since the protests began, in contrast to the Egyptian and Tunisian armed forces. Senior and junior army officers have defected, often with their troops, to the regime’s opponents. Two air-force pilots diverted to Malta, followed by a navy warship ― all in defiance of Gadhafi’s orders to bomb the eastern city of Benghazi.

But, at least so far, there have been no splits reported among the Revolutionary Committees, Gadhafi’s diehard loyalists, who are estimated to total around 20,000 fighters. The same is true of Brigade 32, which is headed by another of Gadhafi’s seven sons, Khamis Gadhafi. This brigade is in charge of protecting the Bab al-Aziziya area in Tripoli, where the colonel lives in his ersatz Bedouin tent.

Libyan military Intelligence, headed by Abdullah al-Sonosi, the Internal Security Forces, led by al-Tuhami Khaled, and the Jamahiriya Security Apparatus also remain intact, with no reported splits. True, the deep, ingrained rivalry and mistrust between Libya’s military-security apparatuses is likely to give rise to splits that will be a key factor in undermining the regime. But, overall, the Libyan army’s tribal nature and allegiances prevent it from functioning as a single unit, either in backing Gadhafi, or in joining the revolt against him.

Tribal allegiances will play a pivotal role if Gadhafi is defeated in the coming days. Historical rivalries, vendettas, and weapons are widespread among Libya’s tribesmen, which suggest that tribal warfare in the post-Gadhafi era is likely.

Yet signs from Libya’s East, now a “Gadhafi-free” zone, indicate otherwise. Of course, inter-tribal rivalries are strong in eastern Libya. But the level of organization and coordination among those leading the rebellion has been quite impressive. Security, medical, and other committees were rapidly established, just as similar rudimentary institutions of order were created in Egypt by rebellious protesters a few weeks ago.

Moreover, when Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam and Said Rashwan, two leading figures in the regime, visited Egypt and attempted to recruit tribes with Libyan branches to attack the Gadhafi-free East from Egypt’s western desert, they came away with nothing. Awlad Ali and the other tribes refused the generous bribes offered to them.

Libyan civil society is not as developed as its Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, which further suggests that Gadhafi’s downfall could result in tribal warfare. But the lessons of Iraq’s bloody post-Saddam civil war were learned across the Arab world, and the dedication and maturity of Tunisian and Egyptian youth has become a model for other Arabs seeking freedom and dignity. Libya’s people may be more politically mature and sophisticated than many observers believe.

The international community has a fundamental legal duty toward Libya. The names of those who head the forces responsible for the killings that have occurred are well known. If generals and colonels like Abdullah al-Sonosi, Abdullah Mansour, and al-Tuhami Khaled, as well as Gadhafi and his sons, were placed on international watch lists, or if arrest warrants were issued against them, many of their subordinates would think twice before ordering their soldiers to shoot or bombard.

The West has known about crimes against humanity and terrorist plots committed by Gadhafi’s regime for decades, most notably the June 1996 Abu Selim massacre, in which more than 1,200 political prisoners were gunned down after protesting against prison conditions. Yet there was no international inquiry, mainly because oil interests trumped moral outrage.

The West owes it to Libyans to protect them from another massacre. So far, the Obama administration and European leaders have said all the right words. But words are not enough; it is time for concrete action.

By Omar Ashour 

Omar Ashour is a lecturer in Middle East politics and director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. He is the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.” ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)