The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Rebels and Foreign Supporters

March 19, 2011

With the UNSC approval of the NFZ+ and the announcement of a cease-fire by the Libyan government, a slaughter in eastern Libya may have been averted. I don’t want to weigh in on the NFZ+ as other Ducks are much more qualified to discuss the potential strategic and diplomatic challenges ahead. 
I did however want to flag a few scattered items about the rebels themselves and purported links with foreign patrons which some readers may have missed and which might inform a discussion of the conflict which is still far from over…

First, Andrew Exum wrote on his blog (3/10/11) at CNAS,

“On a per capita basis, though,twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya — and specifically eastern Libya — than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East. And 84.1% of the 88 Libyan fighters in the Sinjar documents who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya’s east. This might explain why those rebels from Libya’s eastern provinces are not too excited about U.S. military intervention. It might also give some pause to those in the United States so eager to arm Libya’s rebels.” 

Of course, there is no established link between the Libyan youth movement, the rebels, and those who might have volunteered to fight the US-led occupation of Iraq, but the observation is interesting.

Second, Libyan rebels ejected a group of British special forces which attempted to make contact with them (3/7/11). This may simply have been a result of confusion and the way in which the special forces entered the rebel held area.

Third, the rebels apparently have at least one MiG 23 and a helicopter which they used a few days ago (3/15/11) to sink two ships carrying pro-Gaddafi troops. (This report has not been independently confirmed).

Fourth, the Egyptian military is reportedly arming the Libyan rebels with at least Washington’s knowledge.

Finally and perhaps most interestingly, the tiny and extremely wealthy Gulf state of Qatar is involved in supplying food aid to Benghazi.  According to the rebels, Qatar has even offered to supply them with arms. In fact, it has been reported that Qatari flags were seen flying in Benghazi. Qatar is also one of the two confirmed Arab states which will participate in enforcing the NFZ+.

It is noteworthy that Tripoli’s anger has been particularly focused on Qatar (and Al Qaeda).  The Libyan parliamentary Speaker, Muhammad Abu al-Qasim al-Zawi stated on state-controlled television (2/22/11 – Translated by BBC Monitoring):

“We are convinced that this committee will uncover all the facts and that Libyans and non-Libyans will discover the extent of faking numbers and facts reported by the subjugated media against Libya, its stability and its territorial integrity. They will uncover the extent of the conspiracy hatched against the Libyan people. We will present to you a report which gives an account of the events in numbers and pictures. You will be surprised and shocked about the extent of lies and disinformation disseminated by the biased foreign and Arab media.

In fact, we used to respect our brothers in Qatar. However, the brothers in Qatar have used Al-Jazeera TV to incite [sedition], to spread lies and to use hired Libyan and Egyptian Muslim scholars – granted Qatari citizenship and tempting salaries – to carry out this conspiracy mission. This is not acceptable when it comes from a brotherly country. We must make it clear that Libya has a problem with the brothers in Qatar. They have helped us materially in order to settle pending issues with the West in return for providing them with investment opportunities in Libya. There has been no agreement on these [investment] opportunities for technical and administrative reasons, in addition to the fact that they were sensitive towards brother leader’s attack on the US military bases in Qatar.

Accordingly, it is shameful for Qatar to use these Muslim scholars because they are responsible for the outcome of inciting the Libyan youths and other Arab youths. Their hope was to set fire to Libya as they set fire to Tunisia and Egypt. However, we tell them that Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt. It will remain lofty and strong thanks to its revolution and its leader.”

The Doha based Al Jazeera network has been a persistent point of contention between Libya and Qatar. The dispute goes back at least to 1999 (although experts on the region should correct me) when Al Jazeera aired a program critical of Libya’s human rights record and political situation. Libya recalled its ambassador in protest. Relations appeared to improve a few years later following a visit to Libya by Qatar’s head of state (MENA, 12/11/2002).  In 2008, Qatar (along with British Petroleum) even played a vital role in negotiating the controversial release of the convicted Libyan terrorist in the Lockerbie/Pan-am attack, Abdelbaset Ali Mohamad al-Megrahi from Scotland (Sunday Express, 9/6/09). Most recently, however, relations between the two countries plummeted after Col. Gaddafi specifically blamed Al Jazeera for inciting the February 17th movement.

My hunch is that bitterness over the Al Jazeera allegations is not the underlying reason for Qatar’s aggressive posture so much as joint economic and (particularly petroleum) interests based in Doha which were formed through MOUs after the rapprochement in 2002. These economic and financial interest groups seek a more stable and palatable Libyan government. While Al Jazeera’s coverage of the revolution in Egypt may have inspired youth in Tripoli to rebel, this could hardly have been the desire of the joint economic interests which had worked for years to rehabilitate Libya’s international reputation. After Tripoli’s brutal response to the February 17th movement, those interests may have simply decided (like many other external actors) to work to replace the current regime rather than attempting to sit through another decade of sanctions and diplomatic isolation.  (Of course, that’s all just a hunch and I would be interested to hear how experts on the region analyze the underlying sources of tension/cooperation between these two states.)

+ posts

Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia