Libyan revolutionary forces have taken the city of Brega (or Marsa al Burayqah), the “entry town’ at the edge of the eastern part of Libya, and one of its key oil towns.
They had taken Ajdabiya on the weekend, with the assistance of “allied” air support, crippling the tanks and artillery of pro-Gaddafi forces on the ground, allowing rebel forces to chase them out of the city.
The rebels — described by some as holding back and letting the allies do the work — immediately got on the road to Sirte, which lies halfway between Cyrenaica in the east, and the core of the west around Tripoli.
Early reports suggested that they had taken Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and a one-time power base. This proved to be false. Meanwhile, the siege of Misrata continues, with the prospect of a sharply increased death rate, as food and medicines start to run out.
Gaddafi forces besieging the town from close in haven’t been dislodged by allied air power, as it would cause too many civilian casualties, which would throw the tentative agreement on NATO management of the campaign into chaos.
There is by now no question that allied support has been applied in favour of the revolution. Were they to interpret resolution 1973 literally, they would be playing a much more limited role — and warning the rebels that fresh assaults on Gaddafi-held cities would be at their own risk.
So what happens now? Well, the situation is kinda fluid. On the one hand, the greater involvement of Turkey — which is keen to seek a mediated solution — has shifted the debate one way, ahead of a meeting between NATO and the National Transitional Council in London.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
On the other hand, allied nations now seem more willing to directly arm the rebel forces than previously. Whatever their thoughts on this, they have been hitherto prevented by the terms of UN resolution 1970, and 1973. The French have wanted to do this for some time. The US appears to be coming around to it, if a loophole can be found in the resolution.
However, any expanded involvement, such as the use of training forces on the ground will run against the slightly firmer line that the new “prime minister” of the National Transitional Council, Mahmoud Jibril, took against extended foreign involvement.
Thanking the French for their help, Jibril said that “In the middle of the night, your planes destroyed tanks that were set to crush Benghazi. The Libyan people see you as liberators. Its recognition will be eternal … we do not want outside forces. We won the first battle thanks to you, but will win the next battle through our own means.”
As with the original stand on foreign involvement, the meaning of this is not fully clear. The Transitional Council’s initial declaration had said it did not want troops on Libyan soil — which some interpreted with insufficient literalness, as ruling out air support.
This latest declaration seems to clash with the ongoing reliance by Libyan rebels on increased support, as they have stretched their lines forward to the west.
Despite its stand-offish tone, the new executive committee of the Transitional Council will give plenty of succour to those who believe that the war has been nothing but an imperialist takeover.
Two of the four are economists specialising in liberalisation and modernisation of economies, another one is an exile who teaches the subject at a US university. With France already recognising the Transitional Council, and sending an ambassador, the US, British and French governments appear to be in talks with it on Libya’s future.
Of course, there may be no great difference to the existing course — since Gaddafi’s Libya was drawn back into the Western orbit, it has been on a path to the modernisation of the Libyan state and economy.
The Libyan achievements in that area should not go unremarked upon — a certain amount of the oil money has gone into housing and social services. But with six million people and 2% of the world’s daily oil output, it is lagging behind countries with a similar windfall such as the UAE, Saudi, Oman and Norway.
His brutally enforced “state of the masses” concept — in the mid-1980s he attempted to abolish money — may have been genuine, but it’s decades since it was anything other than a torpid bureaucratic state. How much Gaddaffi has actually been in charge of day-to-day government remains a mystery.
The “mad dog” charges worked up by compliant tabloids were beside the point — by the time he began appearing on our TVs, he was less Mussolini than Liza Minnelli, bombed on benzos.
It seems likely that the LSE-educated Saif Gaddafi was using his contacts to gradually build a modern neoliberal economy, retaining one-party rule and control of oil — and the Transitional Council is partly, or even substantially, composed of the folks hired to do this.
Those opposed to external involvement in Libya have made much of one condition attached by the allies to involvement on the side of the rebels — that a future government honour Gaddafi’s existing oil contracts. As far as attached strings go. It’s scarcely of the Halliburton or Rambouillet order.
But there’s no doubt that the Transitional Council is dominating the political process. The degree to which it is actually co-ordinating actual military operations remains to be seen.
In the West, support for and opposition to, involvement has had some strange movements. Polling the public shows that they remain at best lukewarm about even a no-fly zone, and opposed to varying degrees to the current process of active ground support.
Meanwhile, among the punditry, activists, etc, support for support or intervention in some form seems to have increased. What appears to have gradually convinced several people is the slow recirculation of Gaddafi’s remark that once he had taken back Benghazi, he would deal with people “house by house, room by room”, and that there would be “no mercy and no pity”, for those found with arms, or determined to be still resisting.
Had you wanted to invent a sample case to test the UN’s spanking new “responsibility to protect” doctrine of 2005, you couldn’t have done better than what the colonel supplied. Army advancing on rebel city, threat of systematic massacre. Even if the revolution had been extinguished as a continuing possibility, then a more limited operation around Benghazi would have been necessary.
Anyone who is not wilfully self-delusional can see that. Michael Moore, who has spent the past week ridiculing any justification for involvement, posted to his blog “things we can all agree on whether we’re for, against or undecided about the intervention”. Number three was:
“#3. The French were right to take an immediate, specific and precise action to stop the Libyan army from advancing on civilians in Benghazi.”
Which is a pretty sudden and specific turnaround.
Those still in the self-delusional zone included Seamus Milne of the Guardian:
“for all the Libyan leader’s brutality and Saddam Hussain-style rhetoric, he was scarcely in any position to carry out his threat … the idea that they would have been able to overrun an armed and hostile city of 700,000 people any time soon seems far-fetched.”
Others, such as solid anti-Iraq war leftist Juan Cole made a more rational intervention, with an open letter to the left, pointing out what a near total jam an unquestioning politics of “anti-external involvement” had got them to.
Some weird crossovers were going on: in the UK, Lenin’s Tomb blogger Richard Seymour had suggested that it would be legitimate to support Turkish and Egyptian military support for the rebels; a point more or less echoed by London mayor Boris Johnson on the BBC’s Question Time.
In Australia, the anti-involvement blog Left Flank ran the line that allied forces were holding back the revolution, by restricting arms supplies to the rebels — on the same day as the US and French began discussing ways in which arms could be supplied.
Others, at the time that Benghazi was being marched on, suggested building an international solidarity movement to protect it, but that pretty quickly fell fairly far down their “to-do” list. And some have simply gone silent, because the contradictions within their politics could not be resolved.
And for comic effect, Newt Gingrich urged the imposition of an no-fly zone “this evening, tonight”, two weeks ago, and when Obama finally backed one … came out against it — a hint as to why Obama may be better placed for a second term than most pundits believe.
And now one way or another, we’re on the road to Tripoli.