2011-04-13 Doha summit supports Libyan rebels

They are starting to celebrate in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi as the news of the decisions taken at the meeting of the Libya International Contact Group earlier today in Doha, Qatar began to filter in. They see most of the decisions taken are supportive of their struggle to overthrow the 42 year old regime of Mummar Gaddafi and they expect that soon many more nations will join France and Qatar in recognizing the Transitional National Council as the sole legitimate government of Libya.

At the end of the one day summit, the group issued a statement calling for Gaddafi to step down. "Gaddafi and his regime has lost all legitimacy and he must leave power allowing the Libyan people to determine their own future," it said. The meeting which was hosted by Qatar and chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Qatari prime minister, Hamed bin Jassem included representatives of NATO countries, Middle East and African countries and a number of international organizations. Ban ki Moon represented the United Nations. At this meeting were representatives of the Transitional National Council that has emerged as the leadership of the Libyan rebels. For many in the contact group it was their first opportunity to meet with the rebel leadership. Also in Qatar, ahead of the talks was Moussa Koussa, Libya's former foreign minister who became the most prominent member of Gaddafi's regime to deflect when he fled to London last month. Just how he got to Doha and what he was doing there remains something of a mystery. He had no formal role in the summit and the opposition Transitional Nation Council said they had no connection to him but he was reported to be having some meetings outside the summit.

The international contact group agreed to establish a "trust fund" to channel financial assistance to the rebels. Some of this funding is expected to come from Gaddafi's seized assets. The group warned that as many a 3.6 million people have been displaced by the fighting in Libya and that in places like Benhgazi conditions were becoming dire and a great amount of humanitarian aid was needed. There was a great deal of unity on providing this and also on the question of pressuring Gaddafi to step down. There was considerably less unity on the question of arming the rebels. Al Jazeera correspondent James Bays said "Statements from the UK and Qatar have agreed that the situation in Benghazi is urgent. And most is due to a lack of cash - it's not all about heavy weapons for frontline fighters; it's also about being able to pay public servants and getting schools back open."

While some, like German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed "deep concerns" that money provided to the rebels might be used to buy weapons. William Hague took a differing view that arming the rebels in Benghazi would not be contrary to international law. Before the conference he told reporters "the arms embargo applies to all of Libya, but it is appropriate to equip people with what is needed to protect themselves".

The Qatar prime minister also seemed to agree, saying "Qatar starts by providing humanitarian supplies, including heating gas and other supplies. We have also taken 6,000 refugees. For all other needs, Qatar ... will make things available for the Libyan people to defend themselves." The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, went further.

"Gaddafi's tactics are to put tanks in the streets - and we cannot have air strikes against people in the city streets, in the squares, in the highly populated areas," he said.

"Either we make it possible for these people to defend themselves, or we withdraw our claims of support."

The Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere sided with Germany in this apparent split among NATO allies.

"The UN resolution speaks about protecting civilians, not arming them," he said.

And that is the dilemma that those that seek to protect Libya civilians from Gaddafi's murderous assaults without taking sides in the struggle to overthrow Gaddafi face. The protesters that took up arms against Gaddafi when their peaceful protests against the regime were met by massive violence in February were not soldiers. They were farmers and salesmen and teachers and oil field workers, in a word, civilians. That is the principal reasons they have fought so poorly. They have much courage but they badly need better weapons, and most of all, training. They are civilians in need of protection by the international community except when they exercise their fundamental right to self-defense, they cease to be civilians. Catch 22.

This was the view expressed at the conference by Qatar's Sheik Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani when he said "And what are the rebels except civilians who have taken up arms to defend themselves in a difficult situation and an uneven battle?"

Gaddafi's government in Tripoli was unimpressed by the array of international forces in Qatar, which they called "more of an oil corporation than a true nation." The spokesman for Gaddafi's government had to say seemed to indicate they see Qatar as playing more of a leading role in opposing Gaddafi than the United States "We are very hopeful that the American people and the American government will not buy into the Qatari lies and Qatari schemes."

Indeed, the United States downplayed it's role in this conference. While Britain, France and other EU nations sent their foreign ministers, US President Obama sent Under Secretary William J Burns, who missed the press conference after the meeting.

Earlier this week an African Union delegation of five, led by South Africa's president Jacob Zuma, attempted to broker a ceasefire and a peace deal. Their 'road map' received Gaddafi's blessing because it allowed him to stay in power however it was nixed by the rebels for the same reason. Most in the opposition now see Gaddafi as a bad faith actor who can only be trusted to bring down a reign of terror on any opposition if he is allowed to remain in power and gain the upper hand. Even while he said that he was accepting the African Union peace plan, he continued his artillery and rocket attacks against Misrata on Monday, a city he has had under siege for six weeks "where conditions for civilians are said to be desperate."

Meanwhile in the west, where the anti-Gaddafi forces have been overwhelmed by his superior firepower, they have begun going over to guerrilla warfare. In the past week there have been attacks on army checkpoints and police stations even in Tripoli.

While the motivations and intentions of Qatar or the African Union in intervening in the Libyan situation may be unclear, it should be clear that the American government and other NATO countries have lies and schemes of their own and certainly Gaddafi does.

What makes the Libyan situation so complex is that now it is two wars in one. First there were the protests against the Libya regime starting in mid January, much like those taking place in Tunisia and Egypt at the time. Gaddafi met those protests with a level of gunfire and violence not seen in the other struggles going on in North Africa or the Middle East. Eventually the protesters went over to armed struggle themselves. With the most primitive of weapons and with great lost of life they stormed a fort in Benghazi and got their first real weapons. Then a part of the army in the east came over to the uprising as General Abdel Fattah Younes joined the opposition with 8,000 soldiers including 3,000 special forces. Already we had the makings of a civil war in Libya as a growing number of Libyans joined what had now become an armed struggle.

For six weeks this struggle has raged back and forward along the Mediterranean coast between Tripoli and Benghazi. The rebels at one point thought themselves to be marching on Tripoli, but with few heavy weapons, little training or experience and well overextended in their supply lines, Gaddafi's forces were able to roll them back easily. Gaddafi found his own supply lines overextended as he attempted to pound Adjanbya into the dust with his bombs and his shells and as he prepared his final assault on Benghazi.

Gaddafi has enjoyed a singular advantage that his brother dictators in Tunisia and Egypt did not have - billions in oil money. His effective control of Libya's oil, and the wealth generated by it has enabled him to support a regime uniquely independent of the people of his country. With Libya's small population and billions of petrodollars he has been able to afford some Libyans a fairly high standard of living. He has also been able to get the best weapons money can buy from the NATO countries that are now destroying them. Once he agreed to get rid of the weapons they felt threatened by, they were only too happy to sell him weapons useful for suppressing the Libyan people. He has also been able to buy the loyalty of a great many Libyans especially in Tripoli and Sirt, his home town and when that didn't prove enough to put down the rebellion, he had money to pay mercenaries to come into Libya to fight Libyans.

Paying Gaddafi for the Libyan oil, trading weapons for it, and then looking the other way as he ran a police state and abused his own people was a priori the role that the US, UK and EU played in this civil war that was decades in the making. At first NATO did nothing to interfere as Gaddafi moved to crush the uprising with massive violence, but even with mercenaries and aircraft and gunboats off shore he couldn't whip the rebels into staying down. It appeared that an ugly stalemate was developing in Libya with nasty implications for stability in the region and for the price of oil while world capitalism is still trying to climb out of the worst economic crisis since the '30's.

After Gaddafi's forces shelled and bombed the city of Ajdabiya killing hundreds and as he approached Benghazi with the stated intention to doing the same to this city of over a million, NATO was faced with the potential embarrassment of another massacre not of it's making on it's watch. It was also becoming increasingly clear that there could be no going back to business as usual with Gaddafi but they had little influence or knowledge about the rebels seeking to inherit Libya's oil.

So they began their own war against the Gaddafi regime in the name of stopping a massacre but with the same imperial intentions that have motivated their intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan among other places. This has led to a rather complex three sided war in which both the rebels and NATO are united in the goal of ousting Gaddafi but have difference over what will replace him.

The rebels want NATO's help in building a free and independent Libya whereas NATO wants another North African regime that is in their pocket. Most likely this explains why they have been slow to respond to Gaddafi's merciless shelling of Misrata. They have been using Gaddaffi to discipline the rebels, to force them to accept NATO's help on NATO's terms. A cynic might also think explains NATO's "friendly fire" attacks on rebel forces or the shooting down by NATO of one of the few ancient MIGs the rebels have managed to make airworthy.

Difference on just how to play the rebels was no doubt also behind the differences among NATO allies that came out at today's Doha conference.

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