A recent spate of defections by high-ranking military personnel from the Libyan armed forces might mark the beginning of the final phase of the Libyan uprising. On Monday, at a press conference in Italy, five generals, two colonels and a major announced they were part of a larger cohort numbering up to 120 military officials and soldiers who have recently defected from Gaddafi’s forces.
“What is happening to our people has frightened us,” said one of the officers, General Oun Ali Oun. “There is a lot of killing, genocide … violence against women. No wise, rational person with the minimum of dignity can do what we saw with our eyes and what he (Gaddafi) asked us to do.”
The defections come at a time when, despite questions over the cost and duration of the Nato intervention in Libya, the major players in the enforcement, Britain, France and the US, have vowed to step up the pressure, psychologically, diplomatically and militarily.
In Britain and France in particular, the idea is that more intensive strikes, including the introduction of ground attack Apache helicopters, the use of 2000 pound Paveway III bunker-busting bombs, regular day-time air-raids and, it would appear, covertly deployed military co-ordinators on the ground, will bring about a more swift conclusion to the conflict.
Speaking after a meeting with British PM David Cameron, during his six-day European tour, President Obama stated: “I believe that we have built enough momentum that as long as we sustain the course we’re on, he will step down. Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we’re able to wear down the regime forces.”
Liam Fox, the British defence secretary, has said it is now “inevitable” that Gaddafi will go, though no one is willing to offer a deadline or timeframe.
There certainly appears to have been significant progress in destabilising and degrading both the Libyan armed forces and the regime in recent weeks. One officer at the press conference, General Salah Giuma Yahmed, said Gaddafi’s army was becoming weaker day by day, and that it was now reduced to a mere 20 per cent of its original capability.
“Gaddafi’s days are numbered,” said Yahmed.
Such reports are difficult to confirm, but the results on the ground speak for themselves. In the last three weeks, the rebel forces, backed by more targeted and intensive Nato airstrikes, have at last succeeded in lifting the deadly two and a half month siege of Libya’s third-largest city, Misurata. After long and bitter street fighting that saw Gaddafi’s forces, including heavy armour, punch right into the city centre, leaving much of the city wrecked, with hundreds, possibly thousands dead, the rebel victory has greatly boosted morale in their ragtag, yet increasingly well-coordinated forces. In the second week of May, after devastating Nato raids which destroyed heavy armour and ammunition dumps, the rebels captured the strategically important Misurata airport and accompanying air-force base, used by Gaddafi’s forces as a platform from which to shell the city indiscriminately. They have since driven Gaddafi’s troops more than thirty-five kilometres from the city limits, yet the situation at the front line remains fluid, with the Libyan army continuing to shell the western outskirts of the city with artillery, rocket and mortar attacks.
In the mountains, south of Tripoli, in western Libya, the rebel-held towns have been successful in repelling successive waves of attacks by Gaddafi’s forces. Perched upon a high plateau above a wide flat plain, the rebels in the mountains have made full use of their terrain advantage, spotting approaching troops well before their arrival. Outgunned and under-equipped, they have used whatever limited resources they have to knock out Gaddafi’s armour and transport vehicles on approach. In towns like Zintan, subjected to rocket attacks and air-strikes early in the uprising, there is a new sense of optimism that they have seen the worst of the fighting already.
Yet, despite these gains and more than two months of bombing by Nato, the rebels have been unable to advance west of Misrata or west of Brega, some 300 miles to the east and the capital, Tripoli, remains firmly in Gaddafi’s hands.
At the outset of the conflict, many officers privately expressed reluctance to defect, largely for fear of reprisals against their families. It was hoped that intervention would bring rapid capitulation from an army unwilling to fight against its own people, but Gaddafi’s threats, cash bonuses and, no doubt, his much-vaunted charisma, induced many thousands of soldiers to stay loyal. The air campaign, growing diplomatic pressure, the increased recognition of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), the revelation of atrocities, and, indeed, Gaddafi’s indictment by the International Criminal Court for war-crimes, alongside his son, Saif and intelligence chief, all appear to have had a cumulative effect on both the morale and capability of the Libyan army.
The latest round of defections occurred during the second visit to Tripoli of South African President Jacob Zuma, whom, it was initially believed, would attempt to negotiate an exit strategy for Gaddafi. Britain has applied considerable pressure on Zuma and the African Union to press Gaddafi to step down, but both Zuma and the AU have focussed instead on ceasefire proposals. Zuma’s aides stated that his visit was primarily about humanitarian concerns.
Another ceasefire proposal was sent to the Spanish government by Libyan prime minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, yet, apart from widespread distrust amongst Nato and EU nations of such proposals, the rebels have unequivocally rejected any suggested ceasefires, wanting to see Gaddafi tried for crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, in Eastern Libya, Italy has further thrown its weight behind the NTC by offering aid to the tune of 100 million Euros and opening a consulate in Benghazi. They have rejected the suggestion that further support for and legitimatising of the NTC might lead to a partition of the country, offering repeated assurances that this outcome is neither likely nor desirable. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said on Tuesday that the Gaddafi regime is “finished.”
“He must leave office, he must leave the country,” said Frattini, during a joint news conference with Ali al-Essawi, the foreign affairs representative of the NTC.
Last Friday G8 leaders from Italy, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, the United States and Russia called for Gaddafi to step down. The loss of Russian support, or even relative neutrality, is a significant diplomatic blow for Gaddafi as the pressure against him mounts. On Monday, UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay, condemned the actions of the Libyan and Syrian governments against their people.
“The brutality and magnitude of measures taken by the governments in Libya and now Syria have been particularly shocking in their outright disregard for basic human rights,” he said.
In Turkey this week, more than 100 tribal leaders from Libya met with members of the NTC in an attempt to unite the various tribes of Libya against Gaddafi. They called for an end to the violence and the departure of Gaddafi and his sons. Gaddafi has used bribes, persuasion and at times, brutal force against the various tribes of Libya in an attempt to obtain or maintain their loyalty, or at least, compliance, over the last forty odd years of his rule.
Of late, it has been reported that Colonel Gaddafi has been spending his nights moving between hospitals in Tripoli, deeply paranoid and concerned for his safety in the face of Nato bombing raids. Unless an exit strategy is offered, perhaps including immunity from persecution, there seems little hope for him now but to bunker down like an Afghan warlord and try to weather the storm. His demise seems increasingly inevitable, yet exactly when it will come is anyone’s guess.
This article was first published in New Matilda on 01/06/11: