Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Libya: The Coming Break Up?

by Steven A. Cook
July 19, 2011

A Libyan rebel gestures at the frontline, 60 km (37 miles) west of Ajdabiyah (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters)

My friend, Karim Mezran, the director of the Centro Studi Americani in Rome weighs in on U.S. recognition of the Libyan Transitional National Council.

Last Thursday (July 14), the Washington Post ran  an editorial advocating what many have long pressed the Obama administration to do: recognize Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) (as the rebels’ government is called) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people . This legal and diplomatic recognition allows the TNC to claim access to the billions of dollars of Libyan assets frozen in many Western countries.  Although many legal obstacles remain, all agree that recognition constitutes a major step  in this direction.

Is this really a good idea? Most of the objections  to recognition have focused on the risk of recognizing a rebel government before it has conquered the capital of the state,  creating a dangerous precedent or emphasized the ambiguous background of some of the TNC’s members or questioned their democratic credentials.  These concerns also include potential radical Islamist influences within the Council or its relative vulnerability to the many militias that are springing up all over the eastern part of the country.  For those who have advocated for recognition, these are all valid issues, but are either easily overcome or ignored. The Post declares that the Benghazi based administration “has shown itself to be moderate and responsible” and that “it has committed itself repeatedly to an agenda of democracy and personal freedoms” despite many reports to the contrary.  Human Rights Watch, for example, has raised questions about the rebels’ commitment to basic human rights and there is credible evidence that prisoners in TNC-controlled jails have been tortured.

There are, however, other reasons why the United States should not have offered official recognition to the TNC, notably the increased risks of splitting the country. The situation on the ground is stalled. The rebels in the western mountains are strong enough to control some villages, but definitely not enough to mount an attack on Tripoli. The forces in the East have made little real progress in weeks.  The recent liberation of Brega though very important does not alter significantly the situation on the ground. Defectors from the Libyan army have expressed skepticism that the rebel army can ultimately prevail. All of this, coupled with the wavering European engagement, leads to affirm that the only way to get out of this impasse is to negotiate directly with Qaddafi.

Anyone who knows the Libyan leader knows that he respects only one power, the United States of America.  To be effective, the Americans should be able to exercise strong influence on both sides to force them to accept a negotiated solution, though recognition of the TNC has weakened Washington’s position. Recognizing the rebel’s government has outraged Qaddafi and his supporters, while at the same time depriving the United States of a powerful tool to pressure the TNC into accepting a possibly unpopular negotiated solution. Moreover one has to be wary that, the TNC may feel a duty to reward the people of the eastern provinces who have suffered much in the last month. In other words, while the situation on the ground remains stalled, the TNC may prefer to spend and invest resources in the reconstruction and strengthening of the liberated zones thus decreasing the war efforts to liberate Tripolitania. The unintended consequence of this policy would hasten the breakup of Libya. This would be the worst possible outcome of recognizing the TNC.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Marcus

    Type your comment in here…This is a prescient article. The most obvious consequence of US premature recognition of an unelected “council” may well drive Gadhafi into a fight til the death and the TNC into calcified rather than flexible thinking.. This alternative may well result in unnecessary deaths on both sides, and, given the well known Arab penchant for vengeance, prolong the agony long after Gadhafi departs.

  • Posted by Murad

    The country now is divided into three parts Tripoli under Gaddafi and , the east and the western mountain , misratah which are under the NTC control. Therefore the option of dividing the country is not viable for either party. One side must win.
    What the Libyan people need more than recognition of the NTC or the unfreezing of money is the proper arms and weapons needed to over come the Gaddafi brigades.the war has to be won on the ground. Air Strikes will not do the job. This must be done urgently. We should help the rebels to help themselves or send in an international force under UN mandate to finish the job.

  • Posted by sara

    I think we can’t expect more. consider president Obama’s soft power goals; the desire for watching outstanding results in Islamic & Arab world public opinions’ polls toward US policies in the Middle East makes it inevitable for US administration to proceed on the contrary of the public opinion in Libya.

  • Posted by Vince Cannistraro

    The article misses the point that the Jebel Nafusa rebels are primarily Berber and are represented in the Benghazi based TNC. They have been killed and their culture repressed for all 42 years of Qadhafi’s dictatorship. The breakup between this western part and the Eastern opposition is not the risk. Qadhafi will not make any deal with the West, or directly with the US, unless he is allowed to stay loose in Libya. He is someone who rants and raves that he will fight to his last drop of blood to stay as the “leader.” I have no reason to doubt him.

  • Posted by Kenneth Roby

    The mess in Libya shows the folly of intervening into the internal affairs of other countries. The uprising by the rebels wasn’t a case of genocide like Darfur but an armed uprising against a recognized government, in other words a civil war. Wise Queen had the best policy when she stayed the hands of those in England that wanted to intervene on the side of the south during the American Civil War. The intervention in Libya was never about human rights but oil as events in Syria are showing. Syria has no oil thus no intervention.

  • Posted by Karim Mezran

    To Vince Cannistraro:
    The Berbers in Libya are few in numbers, maybe 100,000, most are dispersed especially in Tripoli where their roots have been highly diluted. My family’s best friend is a Berber originally from the mountain, none of his six kids, speaks the amazigh or has any clue about their origins. Those in the Jebel Nefusa are a bit different but still too few in number to really count as a force to prevent a possible split of the country. If the civil war continues as it is this is the most probable as well as most unwelcome result. Being represented, openly or secretly, in the TNC means nothing to this moment. Real representation will be seen once the war is won and Tripoli freed, before it does not mean anything. Regarding Qaddafi, I do not give him the credit to be willing to die standing. He could say whatever he wants but we have learned that often is just rhetoric. Offer him a credible way out and you will see with what speed he (and his people) will take it. It is also obvious that in the absence of such a possibility they will continue fighting.

  • Posted by Mike D

    And now we’re at the end of the summer and it doesn’t seem that we’re any closer to stabilizing the country. I have some hope that things could turn around, but I really fear that the country will be pulled into something much bigger once the power vacuum is opened.

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