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Wednesday, June 01, 2011 

The continuing sorry saga in Libya.

Doesn't time fly when you're bombing other people's countries? It was only a couple of weeks ago that the very last British troops left Iraq, ending our involvement there some 8 years after we first joined in with Operation Iraqi Freedom, although we probably should properly date it back to 1991, considering we were involved in policing the no fly zone right up until March 2003. Come October it'll be 10 years since we went into Afghanistan, and having had another winter where the coalition's advances have been talked up, we're now once again into the summer fighting season, the Taliban striking seemingly at will, while we still can't seem to distinguish between civilians and fighters, much to Karzai's continuing distress.

When it comes to Libya, anyone making predictions as to how long we'll be involved there in some way or another is liable to end up looking as much of a buffoon as Harold Camping. What is clear is that in the two months and a bit since we began operating another no-fly zone in an Arab country is that the mission has not so much creeped as performed the equivalent of a hop, a skip and a jump. Difficult as it is to remember, UNSC resolution 1973, as well as authorising "all necessary means" to protect civilians also called for an immediate ceasefire, something which it's fair to say that only the Gaddafi regime is now looking for. This isn't because the tide has turned inexorably in the favour of the revolution, although with the apparent victory for now at least in Misrata it's true that the rebels have gained important ground, it's more because the West, having been so quick to demand that Gaddafi go has left so little room for either reconciliation or even an interim deal which ends the fighting.

The difference in the approach taken with the uprising in Syria could hardly be more stark. On the face of it after all, the two regimes have both had something resembling a rapprochement with the West. Libya, having got rid of its nuclear programme and other WMD was brought in from the cold, with Saif al-Gaddafi being hailed as a potential reformer ready to assume leadership when daddy grew tired of pitching his tent across the globe, while Bashar al-Assad was feted in a similar way. Hopes that he would begin a move away from authoritarianism may have diminished as the years passed, yet our governments learned to tolerate his cordial relations with Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran, the country's influence over Lebanon having fell with the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the killing being blamed (wrongly it seems) on Syria. While though there were calls from the very beginning for some form of intervention in Libya when Gaddafi ordered his forces to turn their guns on the demonstrators across the country, almost no one has urged the same in Syria.

Partially this is for the very sane reason that having taken such action in Libya, it's simply impossible to do much if anything at all to protect the demonstrators that continue to protest across Syria, nor is there any evidence that a no-fly zone would achieve anything substantial, although it's arguable it hasn't done that much in Libya either. It's also true that there have been few such calls from within the country for such an action, and that the government there has not given a blood-curdling warning to any particular town or city as Gaddafi did to Benghazi. The numbers of dead however are broadly similar: around 1,100 are feared to have been murdered across the country, a comparable number with those massacred prior to NATO intervention in Libya, and the targeted violence if anything could well be worse than that meted out by Gaddafi's security forces; the horrific injuries suffered by the 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib are shocking even by the barbaric standards that have been set already this year. And yet the condemnation for such outrages has been muted to the point of almost silence. No politician in this country has suggested that Assad and his regime, rather than giving concessions such as an amnesty, announced today, should go, nor has any pressure whatsoever been put on it to cease the crackdown. Discussions at the UN, not helped admittedly by Russian intransigence, have got nowhere.

We shouldn't of course be surprised by such inconsistency from this government. After all, a couple of weeks back David Cameron welcomed the Bahrani crown prince to Downing Street, happily posing shaking hands with him for the cameras, while all he could muster in way of condemnation for the brutal crackdown on the protests in the country, the entire camp having been razed, was that "reform rather than repression" was necessary. As for our blind spot on Saudi Arabia, where this week the authorities were magnanimous enough to release a woman from prison after she heinously drove a car in broad daylight, the oil and arms deals ensure our collective myopia.

All of which makes it even more incomprehensible just why we've committed ourselves to an mission without an apparent end in Libya. If the immediate aim was to forestall a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica in Benghazi, then with the danger long passed we ought now to be attempting to obtain a ceasefire as outlined in the UN resolution and go from there. Instead in our determination to force Gaddafi from power we're now sending in ground forces by proxy, while the Apache helicopters wait to be given the go ahead to operate, as though they alone can shift the balance in favour of the rebels. Caution it seems is being sacrificed in favour of doing something, anything: the potential of a Black Hawk Down style disaster is obvious, especially when the Gaddafi forces will certainly still have better weaponry than the simple RPGs which brought down the American helicopters in Somalia; it could even have been supplied by ourselves, as the rebels have been finding as they've progressed. As much as justice must be done, the involvement of the international criminal court has helped no one: any small chance that remained of the colonel being persuaded to leave power voluntarily has been dashed.

If nothing else, the government should now begin to be honest with us. Gaddafi will it's now clear eventually fall; the situation in Tripoli can't be contained forever as fuel becomes ever more scarce, nor will those still prepared to fight continue to do so when the money begins to run out, as it will. The problem is when this will happen, and for now it looks like taking months rather than weeks, potentially far longer than the three months which the NATO mission has already been extended by. This needs to be made clear in parliament, as do the plans for what happens when he falls. The cost of the mission also needs to be explained, something which they've been at pains to ignore from the very beginning. It's difficult though to shake the feeling that there still might well be a sting in the tail to come in this sorry saga.

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