As rebel forces carried their wounded back from a failed assault on the oil town of Brega amid rocket explosions and NATO helicopter fire here in eastern Libya on Friday, a more quiet battle, one with potentially larger consequences, was taking place much farther down the Mediterranean coast in the closed meeting rooms of Istanbul.
There, ministers from 30 countries, including Canada, met to offer official recognition and support to the rebel forces fighting dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but also to confront, in private, the far more serious and divisive problem that has emerged from the rebel heartland here in eastern Libya.
Five months after a protest movement to oust Colonel Gadhafi in February turned into an all-out war with military support from NATO, nobody has a clear idea how the war might be brought to an end – and few nations place much trust in the Libyan actors who are promising to end it.
After Friday’s failed assault and a similar reversal in the western Nafusa mountains, diplomats and military leaders from several NATO countries said they now have serious doubts about whether the ill-trained and disorganized rebel factions are capable of winning the war. This was a key reason, they said, for Europe’s attempt this week at surrender negotiations with Col. Gadhafi: It now seems much easier to bring about a collapse from within. But as worrisome is the prospect of a drawn-out war, officials are equally worried about the prospect of a sudden rebel victory, and its uncertain aftermath.
Either way, the path that leads to Col. Gadhafi’s defeat, and the events that occur afterward, have become subjects of grave interest. The sole concern is now the Libyan endgame.
The Benghazi problem
Officially, Libya’s rebels are based here in Benghazi, under the umbrella of the National Transitional Council, which is now recognized by Canada and more than 30 other countries as “the legitimate governing authority in Libya.” Given that it was created on the fly by a group of university-educated Libyans, lawyers, activists and Gadhafi regime defectors, it is surprisingly professionally run and accountable.
But the problem is that it is only barely in control of the war; it clearly does not represent the full expanse of Libyan opposition; and it is very unlikely to remain a major political body after the war.
Some of the fighting forces, which began as private militias to support eastern businesses, act as political forces unto themselves. Until last month, the largest of the eastern militias, the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, was opposed to the NTC and some other militias; its loyalists had engaged in gun battles with other militias. The brigade’s leader, the well-connected imam, Ismail Al-Sallabi, has hinted that he and his family have political ambitions as Islamist politicians in a post-Gadhafi Libya; they are among several such figures who will overshadow the NTC and its leaders.
Unity, such as it is, appears limited to eliminating Col. Gadhafi. In June, the NTC held a three-way meeting with the eastern brigades, the western fighters and the people claiming to represent the Tripoli resistance, and officially brought them under the same roof. But the western brigades still haven’t joined the Union of the Revolutionary Forces, the central command of the private militias. There are ongoing political and strategic feuds, though Military Council leaders refused to discuss them in detail.
“There is a degree of logistical and practical co-operation between Benghazi and the western fighters in terms of supply and logistical support, but it is very difficult to get a sense of the degree of political co-operation,” said Henry Smith, a Libya-based analyst with the consulting group Control Risks.
Indeed, even the NTC seems barely united internally. That was evident recently when Mahmoud Jibril, the council’s executive chief, announced that the NTC would welcome a peace settlement with Col. Gadhafi; he was then contradicted by NTC spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, who said that Col. Gadhafi would only be defeated militarily, and successfully pressed him to strike those remarks from the record. Several such schisms have occurred.
Beyond this, there is the larger question of just how much of anti-Gadhafi Libya the NTC actually represents. That became clear this week during an interview with Mohammed Musa El-Maghrabi, who represents the rebel fighters of the war-torn city of Brega in the NTC.
“While obviously we feel that the NTC is better than Gadhafi rule, they are only representing Benghazi – we do not have any sense of them representing Brega,” Mr. El-Maghraba said before meeting NTC leaders Thursday. “To us, it looks like the NTC is a foreign government, full of nepotism and corruption. This worries us. Do we want to have a Gadhafi dictatorship replaced with a Benghazi dictatorship?”
Brega may be an unusual case. Nevertheless, Mr. El-Maghrabi’s outburst does raise an eyebrow: If the NTC is unable to create a sense of legitimacy among the people of Brega, two hours down the road, then how on earth will it ever win the respect of Tripoli?
This is a question that has begun to worry foreign supporters, even as they give diplomatic backing to the NTC.
“They are much more adept at building legitimacy among European governments than they are at building legitimacy among the Libyan people,” said a European diplomat who works with the council.
The Nafusa problem
If Benghazi exposes the problem of unity, the Nafusa Mountains, where the rebel militias have perhaps the best chance of making an advance on Tripoli, offers the spectre of indiscipline.
In recent days the western rebels have been accused of multiple acts of arson and looting as they liberated villages here – apparent acts of anger at towns that had been loyal to Col. Gadhafi. As The New York Times found in its reporting there, the young rebels do not appear to be under much control by the more experienced officers, and their anger is not being kept in check.
Here is the most alarming spectacle of the Libyan endgame. Western Libya, where two-thirds of the country’s people live, is home to tens of thousands of families who prospered under Col. Gadhafi, and who are going to be frightened of any supposed liberating force that seems alien or hostile or bent on revenge. While there is little loyalty to the dictator’s ideas, if a rebel victory makes these people feel that their gains are threatened, those experienced with the region say they could well become an anti-government insurgency.
“The day that we worry about here,” a NATO military official said, “is the day that Gadhafi falls, which is the day that these kids have to stop being killers of Gadhafi supporters and start being protectors of Gadhafi supporters. I don’t know if they’re capable of making that change.”
The rebel military spokesman, Ahmed Omar Bani, dismissed such concerns in an interview, and waved away the idea of a detailed post-conflict training plan.
“We are different from the other Muslim countries,” he said, before offering a lengthy parable involving the Prophet Mohammed to suggest that Libyans would naturally be disinclined to take revenge. “We want to apply justice; we want to have fair trials. We are not going to become another Somalia.”
Nevertheless, in response to NATO concerns, the rebels have announced the creation of special forces supposedly meant to protect civilians and former loyalists after victory. This includes the Nafusa-based Tripoli Brigade, which is meant to contain soldiers who have family in Tripoli, including Canadian and American expatriates. But the brigade has rarely been seen, and there’s little to indicate that a march on Tripoli would be orderly.
A big part of the problem is that Tripoli is not Benghazi. Few of its citizens will miss Col. Gadhafi, but many will see rebel forces from outside the city as a threat to their quality of life. If they are not carefully and expensively kept comfortable and secure, the result could be an uprising.
“I think the possibility of Gadhafi loyalists becoming an insurgency is a factor seriously underestimated by Western governments,” said Mr. Smith. “I think they thought this was a regime that held on purely by coercion and lacked a constituency. I don’t see it all being through pure fear — I see some of t being through loyalty.”
At the moment, with the rebels caught in a seemingly endless stalemate on all three fronts, these all feel like remote problems. But however long this sad and unwanted war stretches out, most of the world’s concern will be focused on its final day.
Photo by Doug Saunders