Syrian tanks shell Hama, the country's third largest city (Source: AFP)
By James M. Dorsey
The failure to identify the perpetrators of last week’s mysterious killing of a senior Libyan rebel military commander threatens to undermine fragile unity among Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s NATO-backed opponents and complicates Western efforts to secure United Nations condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The killing highlights the pitfalls of backing a ragtag armed opposition movement, in which former jihadists together with defectors from Mr. Qaddafi’s forces constitute the primary groups with military experience.
It has also - coupled with allegations that NATO military backing of the rebels violates a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya - made countries like India, China, Russia and Brazil weary of endorsing a council resolution being pushed by the United States and the European Union that would condemn Mr. Assad’s brutal efforts to quell demonstrations in his own country.
Critics like China and Russia, concerned about the spillover effect in their own countries of the Arab revolt that has swept the Middle East and North Africa for the past eight months, worry not only that condemnation of Syria could lead to Western efforts to covertly or overtly topple Mr. Assad but that Libya if repeated in any form or fashion could create a legal precedent for intervention across the globe.
International condemnation of Mr. Qaddafi’s use of his armed forces to squash protests led to the imposition of the no-fly zone designed to protect the lives of innocent civilians. Critics of NATO’s operations charge that the United States and Europe have interpreted the Security Council resolution as a license to topple Mr. Qaddafi.
General Abdel Fattah Younes, the commander of the rebel forces battling Qaddafi loyalists and a former interior minister and head of special forces, was killed last Thursday in circumstances that have raised questions about whether the rebel leadership grouped in the Transition National Council (TNC) can maintain its fragile unity and control its disparate forces.
General Younes’ killing has raised the specter of tribal infighting and focused attention on the influence of former jihadists and the role of Qaddafi operatives in rebel-held eastern Libya. The TNC’s failure to identify his killers and their motives has fueled reports that one of those two groups was responsible for his death.
Conflicting reports suggest that General Younes was killed either in TNC custody where he was supposed to be questioned about his alleged contacts with Mr. Qaddafi or while he was on his way to the rebel capital of Benghazi to be questioned.
General Younes defected to the rebels in February saying that he could not be part of Mr. Qaddafi’s military crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The commander’s death has prompted the rebel leadership to try to bring some 30 disparate armed groups fighting Mr. Qaddafi’s forces under its control and led to several clashes with fighters loyal to the TNC.
Many of the armed groups are fiercely independent and distrust the TNC. That distrust has been strengthened by the fact that the failure of the rebels to topple Mr. Qaddafi in five months fighting has forced them and their international allies to back down from their demand that the Libyan leader leave Libya as part of any deal to halt the fighting.
General Younes’ death has confronted the TNC with numerous challenges that prompt questions about the wisdom of military intervention in Libya and have made its critics determined to prevent a repetition in other Arab countries where anti-government protests provoke crackdowns, first and foremost among which Syria. Mr. Assad, in five months of government violence, has failed to squash the opposition; his brutality has sparked an outcry in the West.
The challenges include tribal strife with members of General Younes’ powerful Obeidi tribe pointing fingers at the TNC as being responsible for the commander’s death; fears of the kind of sectarian violence that racked Iraq in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s downfall sparked by Qaddafi operatives in rebel-held territory; concern about what a post-Qaddafi Libya may look like with former jihadists and Islamists playing a prominent role in the fighting; and the prospective of clashes among rival rebel militias that at the same time are trying to overthrow the country’s leader.
Perhaps, the silver lining in the reluctance of countries like China and Russia to endorse UN condemnation of Syria is the fact that non-interference preserves the very nature of the wave of Arab protests: an indigenous revolt that in Egypt and Tunisia has proven its ability to topple on its own steam leaders and in Syria and Yemen has demonstrated remarkable perseverance and resilience.
If and when the protesters succeed on their own steam in Syria and Yem albeit at a heavy price, they will enjoy the benefit of not being perceived as having come to power on the barrels and wings of heavy Western weapons.
That could well enable them to evade the problems Iraq and Afghanistan are encountering as the result of the tainting of opposition forces that foreign intervention brings with it. It’s a high price to pay but one that could pay off in the long term.