Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Time For Truce In Libya

Jonathan Steele writes: The best way to protect desperate civilians in the country is for Nato to reverse its mistake of taking sides 
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 31/05/2011 

Beware ministers' claims that a military campaign is making slow but steady progress. It nearly always means the opposite. If "progress" was really being made in Libya, why would it be necessary for Britain and France to send attack helicopters? Why would General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, call for Nato to bomb infrastructure in Tripoli?

Above all, why US President Barack Obama used his European tour last week to abandon his public caution and make it clear that regime change is now the western objective in Libya? The more Nato escalates in word and deed, the clearer it is that the campaign has stalled.
What is going on in Libya is civil war but one that is stalemated, and has been so for at least a month. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces will not be able to recapture Benghazi and the other major cities of eastern Libya just as the rebels will not be able to capture Tripoli.

 Fragile hope
In light of this, Nato is doing all it can to assassinate Gaddafi in the fragile hope his death will lead to his regime's implosion and rebel victory by a different route.

It is true Gaddafi and his family have done their best to suppress the building of independent political and administrative institutions during their decades in power.
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the army was able to break from supporting the dictator and real political parties existed, the Gaddafis have kept the state in their pocket. But even in this vacuum it does not follow that Gaddafi's death would suddenly bring peace and end the many conflicts in Libyan society.

The word absent from Obama's remarks last week, as well as from Sarkozy and Cameron, is "ceasefire". An "immediate ceasefire" was one of the main demands of the UN Security Council resolution, which also authorised a no-fly zone at the start of the crisis, but it has been consistently ignored by Nato.
 Air strikes

On Thursday, almost unreported anywhere, an African Union summit called for a halt to Nato's air strikes as well as a ceasefire and negotiations on transforming Libya into a democracy. The same evening the Libyan Prime Minister, Al Baghdadi Ali Al Mahmoudi, said for the first time that his government was ready to talk to rebel leaders to prepare a new constitution.
Meanwhile, Abdul Elah Al Khateeb, the UN Secretary General's special envoy on Libya, has been quietly shuttling between Tripoli and Benghazi, trying to broker a ceasefire and talks.

The obstacles are mainly on the rebels' side. Flushed with military support from Nato, they insist that Gaddafi must leave power before any ceasefire. Sending Apache helicopters and escalating Nato's offensive role only hardens the rebels' intransigence and further delays a political resolution.
A ceasefire will have to be accompanied by an independent monitoring mission on the ground, preferably from the UN or the African Union, though Nato will no doubt keep up surveillance from the air.

There has to be full access for humanitarian aid to civilians, as Al Khateeb has been insisting. Close to a million people have fled the country. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes and are in dire need.
Nato officials promptly kicked the Libyan government's offer of a ceasefire into the long grass recently, insisting it is "not credible". How can they know that? They claim previous ceasefire offers were shams since Gaddafi's forces never acted on them. But if they are to stick, ceasefires have to be mutual and the rebel side has never offered one.

First, they wanted to be saved from defeat, and the initial Nato strikes achieved this for them. Then they thought Nato would help them win so they saw no value in stopping fighting.
The time has come to test the latest ceasefire offer by accepting it in principle and working out a monitoring mechanism. The best way to protect Libya's desperate civilians is for Nato to reverse its mistaken policy of taking sides. It should declare support for the talks on transition that the Libyan government now says it favours. (Guardian News & Media Ltd)

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