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Thursday, March 24, 2011 

From cock of the walk to two-push Charlie.

For those of us who still remain unconvinced about the intervention in Libya, it's difficult to know exactly how strongly to put our arguments against. As Juan Cole sets out point by point, it's impossible to deny that the no-fly zone hasn't by some obvious measures been a success: while too much emphasis has been put on Gaddafi's chilling warning that there would be no pity for the inhabitants of Benghazi and his forces would go from door to door in tracking down those that had risen against him, the potential for bloodshed in the city was nonetheless huge. That the home of the revolution has been protected from such a fate is undoubtedly welcome.

The key problems and reasons for caution however remain. The bombing of the last few days, targeted against the tanks and artillery subjecting the cities of Misrata and Ajdabiya to shelling has relieved the horrific conditions under which the remaining civilians have been living, although it remains to be seen whether or not the rebel forces, whom have claimed to be waiting in the wings to retake the cities once the armour of the regime has been destroyed can actually do so. It's also only now becoming apparent just how much exaggeration there was both from and on the behalf of the rebels when it came to their military strength and their ultimate fighting capab
ility: while there are hundreds of volunteers and enthusiasts willing to fight Gaddafi, with sadly predictable results, the newly appointed finance minister of the transitional council has admitted that there are only around 1,000 trained men under their command.

Such numbers certainly all but rule out even in the event of Misrata and Ajdabiya falling to the rebels any sort of quick advance towards the west and Tripoli, something that three weeks ago looked just a matter of time. The inadequacies of the rebel forces have also became apparent to those looking at what a possible endgame might be: Fareed Zakaria in Time advocates the circumvention of the arms embargo put in place by the UN resolution, although it's dubious whether even with better equipment and weaponry the rebels could quickly defeat a regime which for now looks reasonably secure when what they're lacking the most is properly trained fighters. The sanctions put in place also seem to have been hastily drafted, imposing what amounts to a complete embargo on the sale of oil, hitting the rebels as much as the Gaddafi regime. As they have far less in the way of reserves to fall back on, and Gaddafi continues to withhold electricity from Misrata, the situation without relief will quickly become desperate.

It speaks volumes that it's taken almost a week for the coalition to even agree that NATO will be essentially in control of the entire mission, something so elementary being fought over with walkouts and spats. Sarkozy's vanity seems to know absolutely no bounds, France seemingly determined to take all of the dubious credit for the UN authorised measure. Such distractions have meant there has been next to no discussion of exactly where the intervention is heading, which continues to look like extended stalemate. With the obvious targets already destroyed and the no-fly zone effectively imposed, even if we were made to look stupid by claiming that the Libyan air force had been put out of action, only for the French to then attack a plane after it had landed, it's clear that the next step should be negotiations, coupled with pressure on Gaddafi to go quietly. These are almost certainly impossible while both sides harbour ambitions of pushing forward, hence international mediation is urgently required.

Having called on Gaddafi to go, there's all the more reason for him to be determined to stay. And why shouldn't he? Despite Juan Cole's optimism, Gaddafi has the model of Saddam Hussein to follow: even under oil sanctions he spent 12 long years in power while his people suffered an unprecedented drop in living standards, only for the Western "liberation" to then condemn the country to a civil war of such barbarity that it made sections of Saddam's reign look benign by comparison. Protecting civilians from imminent attack is one thing; providing never-ending oversight in something else entirely. Are we prepared to accept the potential partition of the country as an acceptable outcome, having demanded Gaddafi leave immediately? It certainly doesn't look like it at the minute. In that case, just what are we potentially going to do to force the issue, when the UN resolution explicitly forbids any kind of occupation? These are just two questions which we aren't even beginning to get answers to. Only for so long can we hope that the situation on the ground changes, having completely disregarded the lessons of the two previous wars of the last decade, before we start to look like the Two-Push Charlie of Flying Rodent's savage depiction.

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