Rebels' Advance Into Tripoli – Opening Pandora's Tinderbox?

In less than a week after several Western leaders expressed doubt over the political cohesion of Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC), following the reprisal killing of former military leader Abdel Fateh Younis, these same leaders are cautiously patting themselves on the back for a potential ‘victory’ six months into NATO’s air power campaign.

And yet, with the footage of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi triumphantly denying the rebels’ success, the TNC’s declarations of change and ‘victory’ appear to be premature. In advancing into Tripoli, have the rebels – aided by NATO air power, materiel, and intelligence – merely opened a tinderbox of urban warfare and potentially civil war?

Since the start of NATO’s military involvement in Libya, the conflict has been riddled with contradictory reports concerning the viability of the rebels as a coherent political and military body: indeed, policymakers from the biggest champions of the rebels – specifically, France, the UK and the US – seem to oscillate back and forth in their credence of the viability of the TNC as a clearly organised alternative to Gaddafi’s regime.

Several questions arise from this: militarily, to what extent can the West continue to support the rebels as they engage in combat inside Tripoli? The risk of civilian casualties is far greater in urban centres, and if coalition partners continue to contribute arms to the opposition forces, and civilian casualties increase, then the coalition essentially negates UN Security Resolution 1973 which it seeks to uphold.

Politically, will the TNC continue to act as a unified body, and no longer united by a common enemy, will tribal and religious tensions heretofore stifled begin to bubble to the surface? Here, one can draw an analogy to Marshal Tito: Yugoslavia under Tito appeared to be a socially cohesive country, but ruptured across ethnic lines directly after his death. The same may be said for the fate of the TNC, which might rupture not only along tribal – but also potentially Islamist – lines.

Finally, economically, will the TNC be able to secure adequate finances not only to fund itself as a political organ, but also to facilitate the crucial repair of infrastructure in the war-torn country? As debt-riddled countries in the Euro-Atlantic area face increased volatility within their own financial markets, the West is unlikely to sustain a large financial contribution to Libya. Of crucial importance, therefore, is how quickly the TNC can resume oil production in refineries in ports such as Brega and Zawiya (prior to the Arab Spring, Libya produced approximately 1.5 million barrels a day – even resumption to 500,000 barrels a day would reap great financial benefit).

All of this is based upon the assumption that Gaddafi and his sons – and also his loyalists and supporters – will stand down and make way for the TNC. Such an eventuality raises serious questions for the rebels’ Western champions. As the initial airstrikes over Tora Bora in 2001 as well as the US-UK led ‘victory’ in Baghdad in 2003 so clearly illustrate, the West is skilled at ‘shock and awe’ tactics. However, as the US and its coalition partners remain entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade on, these countries are equally poor at implementing lasting political solutions. Successful conflict resolution requires time, money – and, the rarest of all commodities for the West – long-term thinking and the attention span to ‘see it through’.

Thus, much in the fashion of the West’s military engagement in other countries, the resolution of the Libyan war remains a chimera. The only promising difference from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the participation of the Arab League may lead toward more of a Libyan-owned (rather than Western-imposed) future for the country – which would be a welcome, if entirely unprecedented – outcome of Western liberal interventionism.