Save Misrata - and help Libya set itself free

La coalition qui intervient en Libye ne fait pas tout ce qu’elle devrait pour appliquer pleinement la résolution 1973 du Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU, estime Álvaro de Vasconcelos, directeur de l’Institut d’études et de stratégie de l’Union européenne. Il est impératif pour elle de sauver la ville de Misrata des griffes du colonel Kadhafi, non seulement pour des raisons humanitaires mais aussi pour des raisons stratégiques. La chute de Misrata précipiterait la chute du régime Kadhafi.

The international community is not doing all it should to apply UN Resolution 1973 to protect Libyan civilians. This is clearly the case in the martyr city of Misrata, where Gaddafi’s forces have been bombing civilians with impunity for two months now ; according to Human Rights Watch, cluster bombs are being used. And this tragedy is happening with a NATO military operation designed precisely to protect civilians under way.

As NATO’s military operation in Libya seems to be faltering, calls for a ‘political solution’ based on a revamping of the Gaddafi regime under the leadership of another member of the Gaddafi clan are beginning to be heard. This not only goes against all basic principles and, clearly, against the will of the majority of the Libyan people and the EU’s best interests, but it is also totally unrealistic. Gaddafi can perhaps quash the rebellion in Misrata by destroying the city and slaughtering thousands of civilians, but the notion that laying a city of 500,000 to waste would make his (or his regime’s) rule any more acceptable is simply preposterous. The idea that he would agree to negotiate and not only stop trying to destroy Libya’s third most important city, but suddenly be prepared to allow the free expression of the will of the people, is equally unrealistic. Gaddafi needs a military victory in Misrata to stop the rebellion from spreading to the rest of Tripolitania.

The international community, and the European Union in particular, need to deny him that victory, for it will come at a cost that will ultimately make post-Gaddafi national reconciliation much harder to achieve.

As Mouldi Lahmar persuasively demonstrates in his article « Les révoltés libyens à la croisée des chemins de Syrte » (recently published on the EUISS website), the battle for Misrata is the battle for Tripolitania. Losing this densely populated area to the rebellion would spell doom for Gaddafi’s regime. And this Gaddafi knows all too well.

In order to understand why saving Misrata from annihilation at the hands of Gaddafi loyalists will almost certainly precipitate the end of the regime, simplistic explanations of the Libyan conflict as a tribal war that would end up splitting the country into two – Cyrenaica with the capital in Benghazi and Tripolitania with its capital in Tripoli – must be cast aside. Why then has Misrata, the second city of Tripolitania, risen up against Gaddafi and bravely sustained a two-month long siege ? And why would Gaddafi need to ferociously terrorise Tripoli ? The answer is simple once we consider that the divide in Libya is not tribal or indeed regional, but rather one between a minority who has plundered the oil and gas revenues, essentially in Tripolitania, and those who have consistently been robbed of the country’s wealth, throughout the country and in particular in Cyrenaica, who were consistently downtrodden and have now vowed to put an end to political and economic tyranny. It boils down to a struggle between a doomed regime and the vast majority that aspires to democracy and dignity, to freedom from terror and to a better life.

In the richest country in Africa, whose GDP per capita is on a par with Poland, one out of every five people are out of work (the jobless rate is estimated at 21 percent, making it the highest in the region), and Libyan citizens’ purchasing power is lower than that of their counterparts in Morocco or Tunisia, and their public health system (supported by EU aid) compares unfavourably to both countries.

To save Misrata, in a situation where Gaddafi troops with heavy artillery have already entered the city, is perhaps impossible without the use of ground troops. Air power alone has been remarkably ineffective up until now. UN Resolution 1973 stipulates the use ‘of all means’ necessary to protect civilians, barring a ‘foreign occupation force’ which is specifically ruled out. But the ground troops that may be needed to save Misrata from certain destruction should be given a very clear and limited humanitarian mandate, preferably acting at the request of the UN Secretary General (as was the case with the French Licorne task force in Ivory Coast). They should not head for Tripoli, and must leave the city as soon as the imminent danger to thousands of civilians in Misrata has been overcome.

Misrata is at the heart of Tripolitania. Freeing its citizens from the threat of Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry would trigger an anti-Gaddafi uprising in Tripolitania and thus force a political solution. The strategy must not be predicated on a military solution, i.e. to help the forces of the National Council of Benghazi to victoriously advance on Tripoli. The strategy must be to allow for a link-up between the free cities of the east and Misrata, so as to allow the rest of Tripolitania and its many urban centres to free themselves from dictatorship and thus put an end to the fighting.

Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron have declared that to allow the massacre of the people of Misrata ‘would be an unconscionable betrayal.’ These words now need to be matched with deeds.