Solidarity and Intervention in Libya

by Aslı Ü. Bâli and Ziad Abu-Rish

The Libyan uprising is entering its fourth week. The courage and persistence of the Libyan people’s efforts to overthrow al-Qaddafi have been met with ongoing regime brutality ranging from shoot-to-kill policies to the indiscriminate use of artillery against unarmed civilians. When we last wrote on this subject, we already recognized that the situation in Libya was dire. Since that time the violence of the regime’s unhinged bid to subdue the armed insurgency has only escalated. The mounting civilian death toll resulting from regime brutality has amplified previous calls for international intervention. The Security Council unanimously issued a resolution imposing tough measures against the Libyan regime including an arms embargo, asset freeze, travel ban and a referral of the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court for investigation. More recently, the Arab League has called on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The issue of a no-fly zone is only one of several proposals now being loudly advocated. Others include funneling arms to Libyan rebels and proposals to coordinate with Egyptian commandos allegedly already operating in Libya to provide logistical assistance and training to the rebels. Despite the intuitive appeal of the argument that something must be done, we write again now to oppose calls for the types of international intervention that are currently under discussion.

The desire to act in solidarity with the Libyan people demands that we assess the available options against the core principle of legitimacy that any intervention must satisfy: do no harm (that is, do not do more harm on balance by intervening). The likelihood that any of the current proposals involving coercive intervention would satisfy this principle is severely constrained when evaluated against the historical record, logistical realities, and the incentives and interests of the states in a position to serve as the would-be external interveners. Put simply, coercive external intervention to alter the balance of power on the ground in Libya in favor of the anti-Qaddafi revolt is likely to backfire badly. The attendant costs would, of course, be borne not by those who call for intervention from outside of Libya but by the Libyan people with whom we hope to show solidarity. In what follows we argue that embracing the call for solidarity requires a much more careful appraisal of the interventionist option, precisely because the potential risks will be borne by Libyan civilians.

Mixed Motivations and Regime Change

Of the arguments against intervention, the most straightforward draws on an assessment of the long history of external intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. There is no need to rehearse that history here since the failure of such past interventions to advance the humanitarian welfare or political aspirations of local populations is well-established. But because the possibility of intervention is debated in some circles as if the starting point is a tabula rasa, it is important to begin by recalling this dismal history. For instance, the imposition of a no-fly-zone on Iraq did little in and of itself to shift the balance of power against the Saddam Hussein regime, but it did result in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Further, the no-fly zone served as a predicate for the subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq insofar as the ongoing use of this coercive measure against the regime from 1991 until 2003 was cited in support of the argument that there was “implied authorization” to forcibly topple the regime. Indeed, in some ways the modes of intervention that are currently being suggested—including a no-fly zone—should be understood precisely in the register of regime change (rather than humanitarian) intervention.

While humanitarian considerations are often invoked in defense of intervention, humanitarianism is far from the only issue on the table. Other reasons that have been adduced in favor of intervention in Libya include vindicating international norms, re-establishing the leadership of the U.S. in the region,preventing spill-over of the refugee crisis into Europe, and the stabilization of world oil markets. The Libyan people are struggling to change their regime on their own terms and there is no reason to presume an overlap between these various logics of intervention and their interests. The historical record clearly establishes that an external regime change intervention based on mixed motives—even when accompanied with claims of humanitarianism—usually privileges the strategic and economic interests of interveners and results in disastrous consequences for the people on the ground. Indeed, the discord currently evidenced among Western powers concerning intervention in Libya is precisely based in their doubts as to whether their strategic interests are adequately served by such a course.

The incongruence between the interests of external interveners and those on the ground in Libya is already apparent. Beyond their eleventh hour timing, serious mobilizations for intervention on the part of Western powers were issued only after most Western nationals had been safely evacuated from Libya. The fact that outside powers were unwilling to act while their nationals were on Libyan soil demonstrates their understanding that treating the regime with coercion may lead to civilian deaths either directly as a result of an intervention or indirectly through reprisals against civilians identified as opponents. Furthermore, the evacuation channels made available to Western nationals – airlifts across the Mediterranean – were not and are not being offered to Libyan civilians nor African migrant workers trapped in Libya. If the humanitarian welfare of civilians in Libya were paramount, they, too, would have been offered this secure escape route. Instead, once Western nationals were safely out of harm’s way, coercive measures were adopted without any effort to protect or evacuate the civilians that were left behind in Tripoli and beyond.

No-Fly Zone, Local Calls, and Solidarity

To be clear, we are not categorically rejecting any and all forms of intervention irrespective of the context. Instead, we reject forms of intervention that, on balance, are likely to produce more harm than benefit. This is a context-specific determination that requires an assessment of the forseeable consequences of particular proposed interventions. With respect to the context in Libya today we are critical of current proposals for intervention in light of the identities and interests of would-be interveners and the limited understanding of intra-Libyan politcal dynamics on which they rely. There are circumstances under which a no-fly zone might conceivably serve a humanitarian purpose. In particular, if air strikes were the principal means by which the regime was inflicting civilian casualties there would be a much stronger case for a no-fly zone. Though the military situation within Libya remains unclear, the empirical evidence that is available suggests that al-Qaddafi’s artillery poses a more serious threat to both civilians and rebels than air strikes. In addition, the regime’s aerial assaults have primarily employed helicopter gunships, which would be difficult to counter through a no-fly zone because they fly lower and are harder to target than warplanes. Further, a no-fly zone imposed either through the Security Council or NATO would involve an attack on Libyan runways, radars, and anti-aircraft artillery installations with the potential for significant “collateral damage” against civilians and civilian infrastructure. A no-fly zone that risks killing Libyans would also run the risk of strengthening the regime’s hand by enabling al-Qaddafi to style himself as an anti-imperialist defender of Libyan sovereignty. Rather than persuading elements of the military and air force to defect, such a move might produce a counter-productive rally-round-the-flag effect in parts of Libya still under the control of the regime. The fact that for logistical and political reasons a no-fly zone poses a serious risk of backfiring is an important consideration. But it is not the only reason to question whether heeding local calls for a no-fly zone necessarily represent an act of solidarity.

Unlike many other parts of the Middle East, Libya is a relatively unknown political context for outsiders whether they are progressive activists or conventional analysts. In a context where intervention is based on the logic of regime change rather than the well-being of the people on the ground, the absence of on-the-ground knowledge about local actors is especially worrying. Elsewhere, for instance in the Palestinian context, much is known about the different parties on the ground. As a result, activists, scholars, and analysts are able to disaggregate different calls emanating from local actors and determine which they deem to be “representative” of the civilian population or entitled to “solidarity.” By contrast, little is known about the groups that now comprise the Benghazie-based National Transitional Council of Libua inand the degree to which they represent the wider demands and interests of the Libyan civilian population. Libyans from other regions of the country (whehter liberated or regime-controlled), who experience allegiance to different tribal leaders and/or political factions among Libyan social forces, may or may not be represented by those currently calling for no-fly zones. Furthermore, a response to calls emanatating from one region may risk fragmenting the country. The fact that we know so little about the domestic context among non-regime actors in Libya is precisely the reason that the type of external intervention currently being proposed are so likely to backfire.

The desire to act in solidarity with local Libyans struggling for their liberation is important. But without a clear sense of the consequences of a particular intervention – or the interests and diverse actors likely to be impacted – there is no way to satisfy the do-no-harm principle. Notwithstanding the provenance of the calls for a no-fly zone – whether within Libya or the Arab League – and their attendant “authenticity” or legitimacy, we cannot justify intervention unless we can appraise its likely consequences for the civilian population with whom we are allegedly acting in solidarity. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that neither the Western nor Arab powers currently calling for intervention have a record of privileging particular domestic partners based on the interests or aspirations of local populations. There is little reason to expect that Libya will be exceptional in this regard, particularly in light of the mixed motives of any potential intervener.

We do not argue that the international community has no obligation to support Libyan civilians. To the contrary, we strongly believe there is such an obligation, but that current coercive options pose serious risks to the Libyan population with little concomitant benefit in terms of humanitarian protections. The interests of potential external interveners are not well aligned with those of Libyans on the ground beyond that of regime change. This is evidenced both by the eleventh hour nature of current discussions about strategies of intervention and by the fact that the policies under consideration are largely symbolic, such as a no-fly zone that would offer little concrete support to Libyans on the ground. Further, the identities of those contemplating intervention reinforce concerns about such proposals. Many members of the Arab League are currently undertaking repression of democratic uprisings against their rule. The legitimacy and representativeness of any call they issue should be called into question by their own internal anti-democratic practices. As Saudi troops enter Bahrain to shore up the defenses of an authoritarian ruling family against its own people, the bankruptcy of calls for intervention in Libya by members of the GCC and the Arab League is evident. Members of the Group of 8, who met in Paris to discuss a no-fly zone this week, are also compromised by their ambivalence towards democratic demands met with repression by their regional allies and their own long history of brutal interventions and direct support of authoritarian regimes.

Libyans have already made great inroads on the ground and without external support towards a goal of regime change in which they will determine the day-after scenarios for their country. To date, measures adopted by the international community have done little to aid, and may have undermined, Libyan efforts at liberation. For instance, the call for an ICC referral in the measures adopted by the Security Council was most likely counter-productive. The first priority should have been a negotiated exit strategy for al-Qaddafi and his family, not unlike the path already paved for the other recently deposed Arab despots, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Instead, by immediately referring the regime for investigation by the ICC the international community has signaled to al-Qaddafi that neither he nor his children will be allowed to go quietly, potentially redoubling his resolve to fight to the last. Allowing a negotiated exit to exile in an African or South American country would not have precluded a subsequent ICC referral, but might have facilitated an early end to the violence currently ravaging Libya. Further, the same resolution that referred Libyan authorities to the ICC contained a specific exemption from ICC jurisdiction for foreign interveners not party to the Rome Statute, anticipating and providing impunity in some cases for civilian deaths that result from possible Security Council-authorized operations in Libya down the line. The ICC referral has been described as an attempt to incentivize those around al-Qaddafi to defect. Rather than vindicating international accountability, this logic of incentives suggests impunity for last-minute defectors notwithstanding decades of crimes against the Libyan population. At its most basic, the ICC referral represents the triumph of a set of international goals (vindicating a constrained conception of international accountability through the Libyan regime) over the immediate interest in an early resolution of the Libyan crisis through the provision of a regime exit strategy. This privileging of international over local interests is typical of external intervention and would only be exacerbated by options involving the use of force.

We argue for forms of international assistance that reverse this privileging and begin from the known interests of Libyan civilians. At a minimum, resources must be mobilized to offer relief supplies to the Libyan population that is currently outside of the control of the regime (bearing in mind some of the problematic dynamics also associated with such forms of “aid”). Urgent priority should be given to addressing shortages of medical supplies and provision of essential foods and clean water. Beyond these basics, an evacuation corridor for civilians – including non-Libyan African workers trapped in the territory – should be secured and responsibility for shouldering the burden of refugee flows should not be restricted to Tunisia and Egypt. To the contrary, rather than imposing these costs on Libya’s poorest neighbors – in the early stages of transitions of their own – Libya’s relatively wealthy northern neighbors in Europe should be absorbing a much larger share of the costs, human and material, of offering refuge to fleeing civilians. The fact that the airlifting of Libyan and other African civilians to safety out of Tripoli is an option that is not currently on the table speaks eloquently to the misalignment of priorities between those who would potentially impose a no-fly zone – NATO countries – and the local population. Dropping the xenophobic European rhetoric on the “dangers” of African immigration would also have the benefit of removing one of the Libyan regime’s major levers with the EU. As al-Qaddafi threatens to terminate the agreements by which he has been warehousing African migrants at Europe’s behest, he lays bare the cruel logic of tacit alliances (based on immigration, energy, andsecurity interests) that has long lent support to his rule. A Europe willing to take concrete steps to facilitate the evacuation to its own shores of civilians who wish to leave Libyan territory regardless of nationality would at least have broken with its record of shameful complicity in regime brutality.

Acting in solidarity with the Libyan people within a do-no-harm principle presents many constraints and frustratingly few options. This is not because of an absence of concern for the interests of the Libyan population but because there are few good options beyond the provision of relief supplies and evacuation channels. There may be other alternatives short of external coercive intervention that might be considered – such as sharing tactical intelligence with Libyan rebels or jamming regime communications – though such options would have to be carefully evaluated in light of potential risks. By contrast, overt and covert coercive options ranging from no-fly zones to arming Libyan rebels or using regional commandos to train them all implicate external actors in altering the balance on the ground in unpredictable ways. To engage in such coercive strategies without being able to evaluate the full range of consequences amounts to subordinating the interests of the Libyan people to our own sense of purpose and justice. As of this writing, reports from Libya suggest that the tide may be turning against the rebels. We are deeply concerned about these developments, though they do not alter our assessment. We strongly advocate creative strategies of solidarity with the Libyan people while underscoring that calls for coercive external intervention do not qualify. Indeed, it is possible that demands for Western support to the rebels may already have done more harm than good.

In the end, we argue for humility in imagining the role we might play in the course of Libyans’ struggle. The international community is neither entitled to take the reins today nor dictate the post-regime scenario tomorrow. Further, those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Libyans from outside of their country must recognize that we may not be best placed to indentify which local actors enjoy broad-based support. Solidarity cannot be reduced to the diplomatic politics of recognition nor to arguments for external intervention. In the end, we counsel acting from the outside only when our actions are clearly aligned with the interests of Libyan civilians. Imaginative strategies to offer much-needed relief and refuge to Libya’s vulnerable population represent a challenge the international community has yet to meet. That is a good starting point for transnational solidarity.

Jadaliyya is an independent Ezine produced by ASI (Arab Studies Institute), a network of writers associated with the Arab Studies Journal (