Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 22:53 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 22:53 | SYDNEY

Prepare for the battle of Tripoli

22 June 2011 14:49

Philip Eliason is a former diplomat who has worked on Libyan issues and is a member of the Advisory Board to the Macquarie University Centre for Middle East and North African Studies.

Last week, Saif al-Islam, the second son of the Libyan leader, announced that the Libyan Government, in the shape it has been since his father became the Guide, was a dead letter.

For the second time since the start of the civil war, he announced that the surviving leadership in Tripoli would accept elections to resolve the increasingly one-way rebel assault on approaches to the capital. For the second time, the idea has been rejected. For most in eastern Libya, there is not enough trust to permit this idea.

NATO has added tactical intervention to its initial strategic interposition between Qadhafi's forces and the citizens and armed elements in the central north and east of the country. Helicopters have joined fighter-bombers, naval vessels and, we might guess, blanket satellite imagery and electronic surveillance helped by on-the ground targeting support from UK as well as other military personnel.

It's a one-way street from here. But it will be an increasingly bad alley as the rebels get close to Tripoli. The fight for Tripoli and the mountains to its west will be serious, despite the clear prospect (based on the form of the Libyan army brass so far) that there will be defections. Libyans working in Tripoli have told me that the western part of the country will fight the rebels and not lose.

We know from Iraq, various African states, Bosnia and Afghanistan that turfing out a dictatorial regime which has made lifetime enemies leads to some frightening retribution. In Iraq, pilots, academics, the literati, those working on anything linked to nuclear science, business people with Ba'ath links, wavering co-religionists, those of other religion, various ethnic groups, suspected agents, the remnant middle class and more were targets for killing and kidnapping.

This is what we face in Libya. Can the leadership of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) hold back decades of aggrievement when its militias reach the capital?

For the TNC to take its place as a new power, it will need to show more sophistication than most transitional governments. Why? Because we, the West, made it. Several Arab states may have ponied up some working capital and fuel for the TNC, but it's greatest break was made by Western intervention under a Western idea, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Australia was the first and most assertive demandeur for an R2P-based UN endorsed no-fly zone and the rest is now history. 

So far there is little public discussion of handling the siege of Tripoli and its inevitable cleansing or extermination of regime officials, their relations and any perceived beneficiaries. From here on, we, the authors of this situation should look at the following:

First, obtaining explicit recognition by the TNC that it controls its fighters and has ordered and can enforce international norms on treatment of civilians and non-combatants as its forces advance under Western protection.

Second, that the TNC agrees to halt outside Tripoli and NATO ceases attacks for a period of political bargaining over steps towards a post-Qadhafi Libya (which is likely to fail through distrust but needs to be given a chance).

Third, NATO and its members declare that it will apply international legal sanction against either side which contravenes applicable laws, treaties and conventions relating to protection of civilians during the final settlement and post-settlement periods.

Fourth, NATO should convene a supervising but humanitarian and protective force to take control of Tripoli and other western population centres to facilitate transition, as occurred, for example, in Sierra Leone. The object is to create among regime beneficiaries enough confidence to give up and decrease the benefits to the rebels to do more than restructure governance arrangements along lines generally acceptable to NATO states; wholesale disbanding of police and military formations should be avoided. The Arab League needs to be invited into this process.

Fifth, NATO states should establish long-term joint judicial processes to handle accusations against former regime members. NATO also needs to advise on and support prison arrangements. No equivalent to de-Ba'athification should take place. 

Sixth, the TNC is clearly in need of governance capacity-building across all sectors, including civil society and nascent business groups, especially farmers' organisations. Libya has yet to catch up from its period under sanctions and upgrade its water, sewerage and telecoms infrastructures. Caution needs to be shown about privatisation in an economy heavily state-dominated and where public dependency on the state is high.

Why are these steps important? Without a substantial and powerful investment in the new Libya, it is likely to become a lesion in the belly of Europe, a destabilising influence in the development of a potentially new Egypt, an unpredictable energy supplier, and a member of the African Union with little part in addressing poverty and development on its own continent.