NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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The anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya, composed of civilians and defectors from the Libyan Armed Forces, overtook Tripoli on August 22.
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Muammar Gaddafi was the longest serving leader in Africa and the Arab world before his overthrow in August, having ruled Libya for almost 42 years.
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Anti-Gaddafi forces advanced from Benghazi in western Libya to the capitol of Tripoli over the course of the past six months.

The End of the Gaddafi Era in Libya

After serving for more than 40 years as Libya’s ruthless, autocratic leader, Muammar Gaddafi has been essentially driven from power. The Transitional National Council (TNC), representing the opposition to Gaddafi, controls most of the country and has been recognized as its legitimate government by nearly the entire international community. Although Libya is not a significant player on the world stage, this change of power and the way in which it was achieved has various implications for the Middle East.

The Revolt against Gaddafi

Like their neighbors—Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east—the citizens of Libya began rallying against their government earlier this year. And as in other countries swept by the “Arab Spring,” peaceful protests grounded in political and economic grievances were met with military force. The protestors took up arms, leading to an all-out civil war that has played out over the past six months.

Composed of defecting members of the Libyan Armed Forces and armed citizens, the opposition organized under the TNC has rooted out Gaddafi’s military and paramilitary forces in most of Libya. It has succeeded in slowly advancing from its seat in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city located in the East, to the capital of Tripoli in
the West.

The anti-Gaddafi forces have been greatly aided by outside help. In late February, the U.N. Security Council condemned the Gaddafi regime for using lethal force against protestors, imposed sanctions on Gaddafi and his inner circle, and referred the regime’s actions to the International Criminal Court for investigation.

Less than a month later, the Security Council authorized member states to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, stipulating that “all necessary measures” should be taken to protect civilians. A multi-national coalition intended to enforce the no-fly zone was immediately formed, and on March 19, British, French and U.S. air forces began attacking targets in Gaddafi-controlled Libya. Together with direct assistance to the rebels in the form of money, supplies and training, NATO’s military intervention has made a crucial contribution to the effort to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.

Anti-Gaddafi forces launched a major offensive in late July, breaking a stalemate with Gaddafi’s troops and advancing towards Tripoli. With the help of opposition forces within Tripoli and intensive NATO airstrikes, the capital city eventually fell to the rebels on August 22. Gaddafi’s fortified compound was seized and his wife and three children fled to Algeria, while the whereabouts of Gaddafi and his remaining sons are unknown.

Although a few cities in western Libya remain under the control of Gaddafi loyalists, the TNC is the effective governing authority. It has been recognized as the country’s legitimate government by more than 70 countries, including the United States and E.U., has been given Libyan assets that were frozen under Gaddafi, and is preparing for democratic elections within 18 months.

Implications for the Region

Muammar Gaddafi’s fall to popular forces was certainly not welcome news for Syrian President Bashar Assad, who like Gaddafi has been dealing with a massive uprising, diplomatic isolation and mounting economic problems. Gaddafi’s ouster emboldens the opposition to Assad both within Syria and around the world, proving that it is entirely possible to unseat a powerful dictator in the Arab World. Indeed, Syrian protestors have been heard chanting “Bye, bye Gaddafi, Bashar your turn is coming.”

Although the transition to a post-Gaddafi government is still in its early stages, there are some indications of what its foreign policy may look like. Libya under Gaddafi was extremely hostile to the West for many years, initiated terrorist activities against American targets and provided support for various terrorist groups. First designated by the United States as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in 1979, Libya is most notorious for carrying out the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people lost their lives, including 189 Americans.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, relations between Libya and the United States were normalized. In addition to renouncing terrorism and accepting responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, Libya announced in 2003 that it would dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. In response, the United States rescinded Libya’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, lifted sanctions and reestablished diplomatic relations.

The TNC is likely to maintain cordial relations with the United States and the West. In fact, U.S. support for the opposition seems to have generated a large degree of pro-American sentiment, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has reported. “I would thank America for the stance to protect my people,” said Belgassim Ali, a petroleum engineer. Without America, he added, “we would not be celebrating. We would be in the cemetery.”

Western oil companies are set to get priority in oil contracts, while Russian and Chinese firms may be penalized for failing to back the TNC. “We don’t have a problem with Western countries like the Italians, French and U.K. companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil,” said a senior officer with Libyan rebel oil firm AGOCO.

An immediate consequence of the uprising that is relevant to Israel has been the creation of a thriving arms smuggling trade. Anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons have made their way from Libya via Egypt to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, raising concerns among Israeli security officials.

While Libya is not classified as an enemy state under Israeli law, Gaddafi’s regime provided arms to the Arab states in wars with Israel and supported various Palestinian terrorist groups. Thus, Libyan intelligence assisted in carrying out the Abu Nidal organization’s 1985 attacks on the El Al ticket counters in Rome and Vienna, which killed 18 people and wounded 120.

There have been reports that the post-Gaddafi government will pursue a different policy with respect to Israel, which will include recognizing the Jewish state and maintaining normal relations with it. However, pundits have cast doubt on the likelihood of such a policy, and officials associated with the rebel movement have been less than forthcoming about establishing ties with Israel. BACK TO TOP