Gaddafi’s Resolve Sparks Civil War in Libya

After weeks of anti-government protests, Libya succumbed to civil war.

Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi attends an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2, 2009
Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi attends an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 2, 2009 (US Navy)

(MAR 18) Libya’s foreign minister announced a “ceasefire” the day after the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Witnesses on the ground in Misrata, near Tripoli reported that fighting continued nevertheless.

Westerns powers suspected that the offer to cease fire was a ploy designed to prevent military intervention. There should be no doubt about the Libyan leader’s intentions “because he has made them clear,” said President Barack Obama. “Just yesterday, speaking of the city of Benghazi, a city of roughly 700,000, he threatened ‘we will have no mercy and no pity.’ No mercy on his own citizens.”

Britain, France and the United States were mobilizing for an intervention on Friday which would include the enforcement of a no-fly zone to shelter civilians and anti-government forces alike from attacks from the air. An emergency summit of Arab and Western leaders was announced to take place in Paris this weekend. Military action was not expected to commence before the Arab League could have an opportunity to explicitly sanction it.

(MAR 14) While the Arab League called upon the United Nations Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya this weekend, forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi retook several towns previously held by rebels in an advance on Benghazi where opposition members established a transitional government last week.

Mere hours after Libyan state television proclaimed that the town of Marsa Brega had “been cleansed from the criminal gangs and mercenaries,” rebels announced that they had retaken it. Ajdabiya, to the east of Brega, was reported to have come under heavy aerial bombardment.

On the diplomatic front, France was stepping up its push for an intervention. China and Russia, which both wield veto power on the Security Council, have expressed reservations about a no-fly zone though the Russian foreign minister said he wanted more information about the Arab League’s proposal on Monday.

Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, has strongly opposed the notion. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned this weekend that foreign action could be “extremely unbeneficial” and feared that it would “only deepen the problem.”

(MAR 10) France became the first country to recognize Libya’s interim governing council on the day NATO defense ministers met in Brussels to discuss the possibility of military intervention.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy favored the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent air forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi from bombarding rebels. The longtime Libyan ruler threatened that Western intervention would unite his people against “imperialism” in an interview with Turkish television on Wednesday.

American military experts have urged cautioned, noting that a no-fly zone might have only limited effect on the situation in Libya. Defense secretary Robert Gates told legislators last week that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses” while it might not deter the regime from deploying helicopters against protesters.

(MAR 9) Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi regained control of downtown Zawiyah on Wednesday. The city, near Tripoli, had been site to heavy fighting between the military and rebels for days.

Anti-government militias in the east, facing a fresh barrage of artillery fire on their desert frontline outside the oil port of Ra’s Lanuf, renewed their appeal for foreign powers to impose a no-fly zone that could shield them from bombardment.

In a phone call yesterday, President Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron agreed that Gaddafi had to go but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that the enforcement of a no-fly zone could not be an exclusively American effort.

(MAR 8) As Libya entered its fourth week of unrest, a National Transitional Council of opposition members to the regime of Colonel Gaddafi was established in the eastern city of Benghazi which was firmly in control of rebels as of Tuesday. Fighting continued in Zawiya, near Tripoli, and west of Ra’s Lanuf where anti-government forces had to surrender terrain in the face of superior firepower.

While the United States had reportedly asked Saudi Arabia if it could supply Libya’s rebels with arms, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which also includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, declared Monday night that its offer to provide humanitarian aid was rejected by the regime.

France and the United Kingdom were preparing a United Nations Security Council resolution that would enforce a no-fly zone over Libya but China and Russia remained opposed to intervention.

(MAR 5) Libyan rebels managed to prevent forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi from retaking the western city of Az Zawiyah, some forty miles west of Tripoli, on Saturday. Ra’s Lanuf, a hub of the Libyan oil and petrochemical industries, was reportedly brought under control of anti-government militias on the same day.

The fighting in Zawiyah was some of the most savage witnessed in Libya as the protests that started nearly four weeks ago were deteriorating into civil war. The regime deployed tanks against rebels in the coastal town but had made limited use of its aircraft yet. Different opposition leaders called up the West to enforce a no-fly zone, allowing them to advance on the capital but other forms of foreign intervention were strongly rejected.

With Gaddafi’s regime virtually driven out of the east of Libya, opposition media announced the creation of an interim government in Benghazi under the leadership of the country’s former justice minister.

(MAR 3) Nearly 180,000 people, mainly foreign workers, were estimated to have fled the violence in Libya by the United Nations refugee agency on Thursday. President Barack Obama had approved the use of military aircraft to help Egyptians return to their home country and said that Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi had “lost the legitimacy to lead.”

On the same day, three Dutch aviators were reported held in Libya after they participated in a rescue operation on Sunday in the city of Sirte which remained under government control. “Intense diplomatic negotiations” were underway with Libyan authorities according to the Dutch Defense Ministry while the European nationals who supposed to be rescued were transferred to the Netherlands’ embassy in Tripoli.

(MAR 2) Opposition forces successfully fought to regain control of Marsa Brega in the east of Libya on Wednesday after loyalist armed forces attacked the port city in the morning. Military camps on the outskirts of Ajdabiya were bombed.

In a three hour appearance on state television, Libyan leader Gaddafi warned of a “bloodbath” should Western powers intervene. American warships were on route for the central Mediterranean on the same day.

(FEB 28) With large parts of Libya under rebel control, Muammar al-Gaddafi flatly denied the existence of anti-government protests on Monday. In a joint interview with ABC News and the BBC, the embattled leader also claimed that no force had been deployed against demonstrators.

Earlier in the day, it was reported that a military base near Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, had been bombed. Last week, an aircraft crashed in the same area after its pilots ejected from the plane, apparently refusing to carry out orders. Different military installations in the east had fallen into the hands of protesters as Libya entered its third week of revolt.

With over a thousand fatalities reported by the United Nations secretary general, many thousands more flooded Libya’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia over the weekend. Italy, which is nearest by for Libyans seeking to escape to Europe, requested support from its fellow EU member states to cope with the refugees. While many Western countries were able to extract nationals from Libya, large numbers of Asian guest workers remained trapped either in the country or along its borders.

(FEB 23) Despite his threat to violently suppress anti-government protests, Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi appeared to be losing his grip on the country Wednesday. In many Libyan cities, especially in the east, civilians were in control as military personnel defected.

The country’s interior minister was the latest official to resign after Gaddafi threatened to deploy the air force against demonstrations in Benghazi. A Libyan newspaper reported that the pilot and co-pilot of a warplane that had been dispatched to bomb oilfields southwest of the city both parachuted out of the plane which crashed in the desert west of Ajdabiya.

The streets of Tripoli were reportedly deserted on Wednesday evening. Protesters in nearby cities were not deterred from taking to the streets however. Gaddafi’s control did not appear to stretch beyond the capital anymore on the ninth day of unrest in Libya.

European countries condemned the violence, announced sanctions and deployed military airplanes to extract their citizens from Libya. The United Kingdom and the United States hadn’t issued a forceful response on Wednesday yet. Several hundreds of Americans were ferried to Malta but hundreds more along with at least 170 British oil workers were still in the North African country.

London was reluctant to endorse a French proposal to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, wary of antagonizing the Gaddafi regime while it attempted to repatriate its people.

(FEB 22) In a violent crackdown of anti-government demonstrations in Tripoli last night, heavy military force was deployed against protesters. An opposition leader reported helicopter gunships firing into crowds while at least two air force pilots defected and landed their planes on Malta, refusing to bombard their own people.

Colonel Gaddafi made a brief television appearance early Tuesday to announce that he was in Libya, contesting rumors of having fled for Venezuela as his country entered its eight day of revolt. Later in the day, he delivered a defiant and rambling speech, blaming the unrest on foreign “agents” and vowing to die “a martyr” in his home country.

The United Nationals Security Council met Tuesday morning behind closed doors to discuss the situation in Libya. The Arab League held an emergency summit as well.

The turmoil in North Africa had driven up oil prices. Crude oil for March delivery was up $7.88 a barrel, or more than 9 percent, to slighty over $94 a barrel in New York. Libya is the world’s eighteenth largest oil producer, pumping out around 1.8 million barrels a day, approximately 2 percent of global daily output.

(FEB 21) Pressure was mounting on Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi after days of violent protests in which several hundred people were killed. Demonstrators took to the streets of Tripoli last night, setting government buildings ablaze while security forces shot into the crowds using live ammunition.

Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, conceded during a televised address that protesters were effectively in control of the eastern cities of Al Bayda and Benghazi. He warned of civil war and promised to “fight to the last bullet.”

Civil unrest had rocked Libya for close to a week on Monday but since correspondents were mostly banned, news came from Libyans themselves as well as foreign workers who were present in the country and able to communicate by phone or online.

Libyan state television was airing footage of pro-government demonstrators marching in support of the regime in the capital.

Gaddafi has ruled Libya for more than forty years since staging a coup against the monarchy in 1969. During that period, there have been numerous outbursts of dissent. In 1993, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Gaddafi’s life by Libyan soldiers. Three years later, riots erupted in Tripoli which were violently suppressed.

More recently, members of the colonel’s own regime disavowed the heavy force that was deployed against otherwise peaceful protests.

The country’s justice minister resigned this weekend while Libya’s envoys to the Arab League and the United Nations deplored the violence.

High and persistent youth unemployment coupled with a lack of political freedom fueled the unrest in Libya, as it did in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia earlier this month.

The Libyan economy is highly dependent on oil and natural gas exports. Despite having one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes, growth is hampered by more than thirty years of socialist planning, insufficient protection of property rights and corruption across all layers of civil administration. Business and labor regulations are extremely burdensome while judicial rulings are often subject to cronyism and political pull.

If Gaddafi were to fall, it is unknown who or what form of government could possibly succeed him. Most Libyans have never known a ruler but the colonel. It is estimated that about half of the country’s population is under the age of 15.

While Libya is supposed to be governed by local, sometimes tribal councils, it is an authoritarian state in practice where all power is derived from Gaddafi and exerted through revolutionary committees. Political parties have been banned for decades.

The population of six million is made up of numerous tribes, officially broken down in 22 administrative divisions but close to 90 percent of the people live in the major cities on the Mediterranean coast.