ON MANOEUVRES: A rebel fighter takes position in the frontline at Tripoli Street in Misrata, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and Gaddafi forces. 	Picture: Reuters
ON MANOEUVRES: A rebel fighter takes position in the frontline at Tripoli Street in Misrata, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and Gaddafi forces. Picture: Reuters

Misrata offers painful reality check for West

By Mary Dejevsky Time of article published Apr 28, 2011

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It was to be Tim Hetherington’s last communication on Twitter before he died, struck by a mortar on the front line, where camera-people have to be. And it had the haiku-like quality of the best of the genre: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Gaddafi forces. No sign of Nato.”

It was a spare statement of fact that also rang out as an indictment. Where, after all the fine words, was the alliance – the mightiest military grouping in the world – that had taken up the UN’s mandate to protect? Wherever it was, it was not there.

Last week Misrata seemed well on the way to becoming what the anti-Gaddafi opposition feared Benghazi would be: the graveyard of an uprising and its hopes. But the will to save Benghazi – the will that pushed the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone over Libya and drove France, Britain and the US to secure UN authorisation for “all necessary means” to protect non-combatants – has not extended to Misrata.

An evacuation is in progress, by ship, and there have been desultory Nato air strikes on targets in Tripoli, but so far that is all. Misrata has been left to its fate.

Why the difference?

One explanation may be that Misrata, barely 200km from Tripoli, is seen as remaining in a Gaddafi zone of influence, were the present conflict to result in a divided Libya. The loss of Benghazi, on the other hand, could have entailed the annihilation of the opposition.

Another, however, might be the difficulty – or impossibility – of relying on air power to protect civilians in a city where loyalties are genuinely divided and also the problematical military and legal territory into which this essentially Franco-British mission has stumbled. Increasingly it seems that Misrata, not Benghazi, is where Libya’s future will be decided.

Optimists in Britain and in the Libyan opposition make comparisons with Kosovo in 1999, insisting that it took two months of bombing to make the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, see sense.

Patience and persistence, they argue, will win the day. As the fighting continues, and opposition forces remain confined in the east, however, it becomes ever harder to accept Kosovo as a precedent. The defence secretary, Liam Fox, in an unguarded moment, mentioned Afghanistan. The truer, and more fateful, parallels however have always been with Iraq.

They begin with the misjudgements. The desire to prevent Gaddafi from single-handedly stalling the revolutions across North Africa is understandable, if naïve. But to underestimate his staying power and initiate military action without ascertaining the nature or capabilities of Libya’s opposition, suggests inaccurate information – or wishful thinking at its most irresponsible. On Iraq, Tony Blair solicited advice from specialists, then disregarded it, preferring dubious intelligence and the enthusiasm of exiles. Who has David Cameron been listening to?

There was a similar, if better disguised, ambiguity about the key UN Security Council resolution (1973), which was – again – hailed as a masterpiece of British draftsmanship. The protection of civilians was so evidently desirable as to pre-empt any vetoes, but our old friend “all necessary means” returned to tease. Difficulty arose, too, with the definition of civilians. The civilians Britain and France seemed to have in mind were those with opposition sympathies, whose leaders in Benghazi were negligibly armed. But there are civilians in Tripoli and Misrata, too, no less worthy of protection and no less qualified to receive it under the UN resolution.

Protecting them, though, would not necessarily tip the advantage towards the opposition.

This is surely why British officials talked about returning to the UN for clarification (shades of that vexed “second resolution”), why they now appear to accept this will not happen, and why Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy moved to make their desire for regime-change explicit in the article they published jointly with Barack Obama a week ago. At the same time, official communications have been punctilious about citing the “protection of civilians” as justification for any action, even when that seems far-fetched. The appearance of legality must be maintained, but the linguistic gap between presentation and reality only widens. The first British-funded evacuation ship out of Misrata offered a particularly heinous example.

Described as a ship full of the wounded and amputees, it actually transported 31 injured men, including four amputees, and almost 1 000 stranded foreign workers.

A misfired military operation spawns divisions. It is clear that some MPs are suffering twinges of buyer’s remorse – in a Commons that was even more unanimously behind Cameron than it was behind Blair over Iraq. (Note to future governments: beware a Commons that lacks dissenters, where due scrutiny is sacrificed to sympathy.)

It is clear, too, if you listen to those who speak in their name, that the military establishment is divided between those who would let the UN niceties go hang, and commandeer the tools to “finish the job” – send in special forces and take the fight directly to Gaddafi – and those who want to make for the exit forthwith, salvaging as much dignity as possible.

All the while Britain’s long-exiled and ever-hopeful Libyans sing siren songs of a free and harmonious Libya just over the horizon; a Libya where Gaddafi is but a distant memory, democracy rules, and Britain and France are remembered forever as liberators.

There is an answer to Tim Hetherington’s implied question, but it is probably not the one he would have wanted. Nato has not intervened in Misrata because it could not, under the terms of the UN resolution; but also perhaps because it is dawning on the cheer-leaders for intervention that they risk falling into the same trap as Bush and Blair did in Iraq.

Unless Libya’s opposition is strong enough to prevail alone, it will not be strong enough to produce a democratic government. Misrata is where the air strikes must stop and where the retreat to diplomacy must begin. – The Independent

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