Predicting Libya’s Unravel

"Mashaashia" is written on doors, signifying which houses supported Qaddafi

C.J. Chivers has a nice piece in the New York Times about looting and potential retaliatory violence by Libyan rebels in the west of the country. Rebels apparently wrote  “Mashaashia” – the name of a tribe allied with Qaddafi – on the doors of suspected regime collaborators as rebel forces looted houses and shops, driving all of the civilians out of the village. Chivers has documented similar action in four villages across the west and an increase in what he sees as tribal violence based solely on the political allegiances of the civilian inhabitants. Chivers believes that the violence that he has seen is easily preventable, but allowed by rebel commanders. Predictably, such retaliatory violence – if left unchecked – would peak in Tripoli where many Qaddafi supporters are living. From Chivers:

As one house burned inside near the road and rebels openly stole from the town’s few stores, the question by late last week was whether what was happening was the opportunistic looting of an inexperienced quasi-military force, which was suffering the same shortages as everyone else, or something punitive and potentially much worse. Either behavior would be a crime under any notion of modern law, though the first might not set into motion long-term grievances while the second might be taken as an indicator that as this war smolders on, the possibility of unleashing bitterness between tribes and Qaddafi-era political factions grows each day…

Moreover, the leadership of the Free Libyan Forces, for all the statements otherwise, appeared to lack the ability or inclination to prevent these crimes. When asked on Sunday about the looting and arson, the former Qaddafi military colonel who commands fighters in the mountains, Mukhtar Farnana, had little to say beyond being careful to insist that any looting was not officially sanctioned. “I haven’t any idea about that,” he said. “We did not give an order or information to do it…”

But as the rebels talk of pushing toward Tripoli, if they think that the smaller scale of their crimes excuses or justifies them, then they risk embarrassing their backers, losing international support and fueling exactly the kind of war they have insisted they and NATO would prevent.

Chaotic and destabilizing tribal violence is precisely the last thing that the intervening NATO members need. Despite the slow, but continuous rebel advance to the capital, former NATO officials have admitted that the international offensive has not been nearly as quick or effective as it needed to be, leading several leading NATO members to call for negotiations with Qaddafi. For the United States the myriad reasons for intervening in the first place are quickly falling apart nearly as quickly as the Arab view of the American role in Libya. In other words, the west seems to have had it with the Libyan adventure.

With waning western support, the tribal retaliatory violence has the potential to further destabilize the country at perhaps its most critical moment. As Larison notes, the violence reported by Chivers in the west of the country is not only bound to continue and perhaps expand, but it is also unsurprising: “The depressing thing about Chivers’ report is that this sort of behavior from an ill-disciplined insurgent force advancing into likely hostile territory is completely unsurprising and entirely to be expected.”

The looting in western Libya and the potential continuation of tribal issues as the rebels approach Tripoli unfortunately reminded me of exactly how predictable such violence is. In April I wrote about how the fall of the Qaddafi government would undoubtedly create a power vacuum that the Transitional National Council (TNC) would be unable to fill entirely, allowing for corruption and violence. Libya, post-Qaddafi, could be a repetition of post-Saddam Iraq; the lack of national institutions could facilitate tribal violence and chaos where the TNC is unable to govern. Likewise, in June, I wrote about the potential for tribal violence to break out in retribution for alliances with Qaddafi. Phillip Eliason wrote about the potential for tribal retaliatory violence as well, noting that such outbursts of chaos should be expected and tempered with a number of steps, including the deployment of NATO humanitarian and protective forces in Tripoli.

Chivers mentions that the violence could be caused by something other than tribal connections with the falling regime, but he makes no secret of his belief that the rebels were targeting those who once supported the ancien regime. If the rebel forces, backed by the firepower of the west, loot the stores and homes of Qaddafi supporters in Tripoli while performing executions of those suspected of backing the dictator, the Arab opinion of the west would continue to fall. The intervention-weary western counties are likely unable to prevent the escalation of either tribal or retaliatory violence from becoming the norm in Libya. Unfortunately, it seems as though the rebel forces and, more unnerving, the rebel commanders are making no effort to rein in such chaos. Should the tribal violence that Chivers witnessed continue and find its way into Tripoli, the consequences would be disastrous – not only for a Libya desperately trying to unite, but also for the reputation of the western intervening force.

Photo from New York Times

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