Libya: what happens next?

It appears that this phase, at least, of the conflict in Libya is reaching its denouement. South African president Jacob Zuma has met with Gaddafi, and reports that the latter is interested in negotiating a truce. The ‘roadmap’ that he is apparently prepared to implement, however, has already been rejected both by NATO and by the Benghazi-based rebel army on the grounds that it would not require him to relinquish power.

Meanwhile, eight senior officers — apparently including five generals — have defected from Gaddafi’s army. One has accused him of ‘genocide’. The small rebel-operated oil refinery at Tobruk has shut down due to a lack of supplies, and it’s unclear when production could begin again. The RAF is intensifying its bombing campaign against Gaddafi, employing ‘bunker-busting’ bombs. Finally, footage taken by Al-Jazeera shows six westerners on the front line with Libyan rebels.

What are we to make of all this? First of all, the NATO rejection of the ‘roadmap’ seems to give the lie to the idea that protecting civilians is their primary objective. The protection of civilians surely cannot be better served by maintaining armed conflict than by negotiating for a truce. Admittedly, that could be a truce with no guarantee of stable government (or stable oil supplies), but NATO still has no mandate for intervening in that capacity.

The defections of senior military officers, who claim that Gaddafi’s army is “only 20% as effective” as it was prior to February’s rebellion and that “no more than 10” generals remain loyal to him, appears to indicate that his regime is indeed close to being toppled. It leaves a slew of unanswered questions, however. Are the officers defecting out of principle, for example, or simply because they sense that they are leaving a sinking ship? What measures are in place to facilitate the creation of a leadership that will support the will of the Libyan populace (as opposed to simply replacing Gaddafi with a new, more malleable, dictator)?

The drying-up of the oil supply could be coincidental, or it could be a key motivation for the continued escalation of air strikes. Given that we find it hard to believe that protecting civilians is genuinely NATO’s strongest motivation for military intervention, we find ourselves asking what else might be provoking such determined assaults. The prize of control of Libya’s oil reserves seems one obvious answer.

The presence of Westerners in the ranks of Libyan rebels only raises further questions about the integrity of our government and others participating in the strikes.

It seems likely that Gaddafi will indeed be unseated before too long. Will his demise (figurative or literal) herald an era of freedom and peace in Libya, or does this already war-torn country have something very different in store for it?

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