The “Libyan Model” Won’t Save Syria

Mission Accomplished!

Congressional Republicans are pressuring the White House this week to intervene in Syria. They are basing their case, bizarrely enough, on the president’s war in Libya. “I think the Libyan model could serve us well,” Sen. Lindsay Graham said this week. “We need to help the rebels militarily, economically, and let Assad know that he is an international outlaw and be held accountable…. We should consider a ‘no drive, no fly’ zone, too, pretty quickly.”

For interventionists in Congress to claim that the Libyan intervention “served us well” is absurd in the extreme–unless the “us” excludes entirely the Libyan people. Libya wasn’t a model–it was a thoroughly illegal, totally dysfunctional catastrophe. The fact that anyone can still tout Libya as a success without it being as politically-damaging and obviously ludicrous as claiming Iraq as a success is a testament to the complete disengagement of the American people and U.S. media. Consider these facts:

What is now known is that while the death toll in Libya when Nato intervened was perhaps around 1,000-2,000 (judging by UN estimates), eight months later it is probably more than ten times that figure. Estimates of the numbers of dead over the last eight months – as Nato leaders vetoed ceasefires and negotiations – range from 10,000 up to 50,000. The National Transitional Council puts the losses at 30,000  dead and 50,000 wounded.

But of course, much worse atrocities would have been committed had we not intervened, right? President Obama told Congress he was compelled to intervene (with what is now apparently his own personal army) because “we knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” It seems clear from the context, as Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt noted at the time, that

the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?).

But as Walt pointed out separately:

Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders.

Without any precedents or statements from Qaddafi indicating a massacre was likely, why was President Obama so convinced a horrendous atrocity would be committed? Over a year later, the president has still offered no explanation or intelligence to support his position. We now know it’s likely Qaddafi even lacked the military capability to commit such a slaughter.

But the lie that was Libya is even more clear when you look at how the mission actually operated. From day one, NATO forces ignored the UN mandate and began bombing Libyan forces on the ground. More egregiously still, NATO strikes targeted Qaddafihis family (including his grandchildren), and generic government sites. The “no-fly zone” to protect civilians was simply a useful cover for regime change.

As the war dragged on, the U.S. more fully demonstrated just how much more they cared about regime change than protecting civilians. NATO began to redefine “military” targets–striking Qaddafi-loyal rescuers who came to help after NATO strikes, killing 47 civilians in Sirte (similar to drone strikes on Pakistani rescuers). In July, NATO bombed Libya State TV killing three journalists. Later that month, strikes against other government officials killed 15 civilians. Finally, in October, U.S. drone strikes hit Qaddafi’s convoy as he attempted to escape the city of Sirte. Rebel forces then captured him, sodomized him repeatedly with a knife, executed him, and then danced around his corpse lifting his head repeatedly for camera shots, wildly shooting weapons into the air.

Qaddafi’s gruesome execution was certainly a war crime–not that Hillary Clinton saw it that way. “We came. We saw. He died,” she joked to CBS News. Nevertheless, the lynching should have given the West some insight into the character of the opposition forces we had just spent the previous year supporting. Amnesty International, for example, has described how early the opposition war crimes began: “In the immediate aftermath of taking control in eastern Libya, angry groups of supporters of the ’17 February Revolution’ shot, hanged and otherwise killed through lynching dozens of captured soldiers and suspected foreign ‘mercenaries’ – and did so with total impunity.”

Sirte is a wasteland

Furthermore, the Independent Civil Society Mission to Libya described how rebel forces were creating ghost towns by driving out Qaddafi supporters as a form of punishment. Human Rights Watch reported on mass graves in Qaddafi’s final stronghold of Sirte where Qaddafi supporters were executed with their hands tied behind their backs. As many as 500 people may have been murdered in this way. That war crimes were committed once Sirte was taken is no surprise given the level of destruction both NATO and Libyan forces inflicted on the city. The two month siege completely decimated the city, as seen in the picture above. The city was then subsequently looted.

Indiscriminate bombing throughout Libyan cities has displaced thousands of people in a massive humanitarian crisis that has been ignored by the West. Amnesty International reports:

While neighbouring countries, most notably Tunisia and Egypt, have received hundreds of thousands of third-country nationals fleeing Libya, member states of the European Union (EU) continued to enforce their border control policies and failed to guarantee safety for those escaping conflict. Since March, more than 1,500 fleeing men, women and children have perished at sea trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Amnesty International has also reported on the makeshift prisons that were erected in “schools, football clubs, and apartments” that house thousands of alleged Qaddafi supporters and racial minorities erroneously believed to be Qaddafi mercenaries. These prisons are run by local councils and torture and beating are common. They write:

In one detention centre, Amnesty International delegates found a wooden stick and rope, and a rubber hose, of the kind that could have been used to beat detainees, including on the soles of their feet, a torture method known as falaqa. In another, they heard the sound of whipping and screams. Detainees are held without legal orders and, with rare exceptions, without any involvement of the General Prosecution, as the justice system remains paralysed.

It has gotten so bad in post-Qaddafi Libya that Doctors Without Borders has stopped work in Libyan prisons in Misrata because prisoners were “tortured and denied urgent medical care.” Organization officials added that detainees were being tortured and treated, just so they could be tortured again. At least two inmates were tortured to death in this manner.

All the unlawful detention, torture, killings, mass graves, ghost towns, indiscriminate bombing, and other atrocities would have been one thing, but the fact that these events were enthusiastically backed indirectly by NATO and the CIA has exposed the U.S. humanitarian agenda as a complete fraud. Worse, even as the UN is reporting that the human rights violations are ongoing, the U.S. continues to back the new government blindly.

What the “Libyan model” shows is that not only are NATO governments not capable of intervening militarily to protect civilians, but that even if they were, they’d have no desire to.

Update: In May, eleven Libyan religious leaders were killed by U.S. missile strikes that hit a nearby “command and control” bunker (because the underground headquarters was a threat to “the Libyan civilian population.”) Libyan Islamic leaders held a press conference after the attacks in which they “urged Muslims across the world to kill ‘1,000 people for each dead imam’ across the world, namely in ‘France, Italy, Denmark, Britain,  Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.'” Interventions like these not only turn badly for the populations they affect–they ultimately turn badly for the intervening nation as well.

Update 2: Oil rich eastern Libya declared themselves “semi-autonomous” yesterday after years of neglect from the Tripoli government. The move could likely start a second civil war as National Transitional Council head Mustafa Abdel Jalil has rejected the move saying, “We are ready to deter them, even with force.”