Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rebels Need To Reveal Post-Gaddafi Plan

By Michael Peel in London
The advance by Libyan rebels into a town controlling a key overland supply route to Tripoli is the first clear sign that the end game for Col Muammer Gaddafi’s regime may be near. It also heralds another potentially very dangerous phase for the country.
Oppositions forces’ effort to surround the capital almost exactly six months after their uprising began is a reminder of a new set of looming threats, ranging from factional in-fighting to reprisals against regime loyalists.
If it is still unwise to call the result of this unpredictable conflict between two mercurial armies, now is the moment when all parties need to explain in detail how the peace would be kept post-Gaddafi and how the country would be governed were he to be ousted.
As Shashank Joshi, associate fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, put it: “I am concerned about post-war Libya - not least because the opposition is so defensive about the idea of tribal, factional or religious-secular divisions, and because the possibility of international ground forces is so incredibly remote.”
The rebels have over the past few days pushed into the town of Zawiya, which they held for the first few weeks of the conflict, and, they claim, Gharyan, about 80km south of Tripoli. Zawiya is on the coastal route to Tunisia to the west, while Gharyan is the gateway to the sub-Saharan African countries to Libya’s south.
It is far from clear that the conflict in Libya is definitely approaching a decisive end just yet, for all the signs that the Gaddafi regime’s ability to fight back and command loyalty have been steadily eroded by Nato airstrikes, defections and economic sanctions. The opposition forces have shown before that they can give up ground as quickly as they claim it. Even if the rebels capture and hold Zawiya and Gharyan, Col Gaddafi could still dig in until the September 1 42nd anniversary of his rule and beyond, hoping to outlast both his militarily threadbare opponents and Nato’s diminishing international political capital.
Should the rebels and their allies manage to maintain and tighten the squeeze on the colonel, they will face a fresh set of problems and responsibilities. Perhaps the most pressing is ensuring the conflict does not turn into a bloodbath in Tripoli involving the many militias armed by the regime, fighting in residential streets across the capital that Nato dare not bomb. If Col Gaddafi does fall, there is the further risk of reprisals, such as those already noted by human rights workers and journalists last month as the western Libyan rebels advanced from their mountain base into regime-held territory.
A successful rebel advance into Tripoli would also bring with it a rich set of political calculations and complications. One is that it seems now is if the western-based rebels are more likely to make a decisive thrust into the capital, rather than their counterparts in the east, home of the opposition’s main governing structures, including the ruling Transitional National Council. Another is that both the western and eastern rebels are diverse in their politics, ethnicity and religiosity, their potential internal tensions highlighted by last month’s mysterious killing of the eastern military commander – and Gaddafi regime defector – Gen Abdul Fattah Younes.
The rebels and western officials say it would be unfair to claim they have made no plans for how to run a post-Gaddafi Libya safely and competently. They say they are alive to the dangers of a security vacuum and are making contingency arrangements that they cannot discuss publicly now. Rebel officials have for months claimed they are in touch with technocrats and pragmatists from the regime, urging them to switch sides at the right moment and keep the machinery of government running.
The soundness of these plans may never be tested if Col Gaddafi finds a way to turn the military tide once again. The colonel might also leave power more peacefully than expected, or the supposedly die-hard loyalists around him might melt away if they think the game is up. But the possibility for a cataclysmic finale remains and the rebels and their international backers will have to show Libya’s long-suffering population that their triumph would not plunge country into a new kind of nightmare.
This commentary was published in The Financial Times on 15/08/2011

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