Regardless of whether Muammar Qaddafy is killed, brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, or exiled, his regime has collapsed beyond recovery. After a five-month air war against his forces NATO has succeeded in decisively tipping the balance on the ground in favor of the rebels. This does not mean that the war in Libya is over, however. It is only entering a new, more complicated stage.
The new chapter is heralded by a flamboyant half-Irish rebel commander, Husam Najjair, announcing that the first thing his forces will do “is set up checkpoints to disarm everyone, including other rebel groups.” Otherwise it will be a bloodbath, he said, since “all the rebel groups will want to control Tripoli.” Najjair’s Tripoli Brigade is only one among several “rebel groups,” however, and it is unimaginable that others will willingly surrender their weapons and thus accept his authority. Najjair’s statement merely reflects a mindset likely shared by his erstwhile allies who now view each other as rivals.
The United States, Britain and France have encouraged, financed, armed, and—crucially—provided 150 days of air support to the rebels in the name of protecting civilians. They have finally succeeded in bringing down Qaddafy. This had been their objective all along, regardless of the UNSC resolution authorizing limited action for supposedly humanitarian goals. They are therefore responsible for what happens on the ground in the days and weeks to come—and they will do nothing about it.
After the U.S. Army deposed Saddam, Iraq was the scene of a protracted vendetta and simultaneous bloody struggle for power which the occupying “Coalition” forces were unable and unwilling to prevent. The absence of such forces on the ground in Libya means that the rebels will be even freer to settle their political, personal and tribal scores with Qaddafy’s supporters as they deem fit—which will be a nasty business—and to try to “disarm” each other, which will exacerbate rather than prevent a bloodbath. Many ordinary Libyans with no commitment to either side will become as nostalgic for Qaddafy’s days as their Iraqi counterparts turned wistful for the predictable stability of Saddam’s rule only months after his fall.
It is an even bet that eventual winners will be Cyrenaica’s Jihadists of different hues—the best armed and organized rebel faction by far—who are different in style but not in substance from the Shia clerics who are now in charge in Baghdad. It is also possible that there will be no clear winner for a long time. The disintegration of the Libyan state, the revival of tribal core loyalties and the ineffectiveness of the Transitional National Council (TNC) have the potential to turn Libya into a more sophisticated version of Somalia. The tribes are already arming themselves and moving away from the central state. A Hobbesian free-for-all would turn Libya into a hotbed of regional instability and a safe haven for the assorted Fourth Generation Warriors, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb.
Yet again NATO has intervened militarily in pursuit of formally stated goals which had little to do with its hidden agenda and which produced results “objectively” detrimental to Western interests. Just as the Kosovo intervention was not about “preventing genocide” but about handing over the southern Serbian province to Washington’s KLA clients, the Libyan intervention was not about “protecting civilians” but about bringing down Qaddafy. The Balkan Syndrome of the 1990’s has been transferred to a grander, strategically more significant scene. If it is the purpose of the United States and its European NATO partners to replace Arab dictators with hard-line Islamists, they have done equally well in Mesopotamia and in north Africa. Watch out for the neocon-neolib chorus demanding the replay of the Libyan success in Syria.