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Why the West is arming rebels in Libya

April 02, 2011

AS the crisis in Libya continues to spiral into a dead-end struggle between Qadhafi and his rebels, the world is being held virtually hostage to an incredible battle of nerves.

In the middle of the nerve-wrecking high-wire act by an unrepentant and unyielding Qadhafi, someone at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington has dug up a long-forgotten Lenin saying that sums up the essence of the ongoing spectacle in the Arab world in its entirety: “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”

But even Lenin couldn't have presaged that his dictum of decades happening in weeks would come true, almost a century later, in an area that most pundits of world affairs had long come to refer to as half-asleep, half awake.

With this perspective in mind, what's going on in Libya and at least three other fire-zones — Syria, Yemen and Bahrain — isn't just spectacular but also mind-boggling. But Libya, of course, is the one hogging the centre stage because of the ferocity of the struggle between a despot who wouldn't yield to all the pressure being applied on him and a rag-tag band of rebels.

Qadhafi has long been the maverick in the comity of nations. In his own immutable style, he has engineered the launching of a thousand Tomahawk 'cruise' and other missiles against his army by a western coalition cobbled together under the US command, and sanctified by the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that gives the coalition a huge leverage to use all necessary means to loosen his grip on power in the name of protecting the Libyan people.

Apparently, the western scramble to help save the Libyan rebels is being justified on the basis of humanitarian concern for the lives and welfare of those in the sights of his guns. There's hardly a doubt that the western military intervention came not a moment too soon for the beleaguered rebels who, on March 17, the day the UN resolution was passed in New York were in imminent danger of being decimated by the Qadhafi forces' onslaught against Benghazi.

So it's Qadhafi's refusal to bend to the wind blowing against him that has opened the way for western military intervention in Libya on the side of the civilian population. Few at this stage would be able to recall what the western military power did to Libya exactly a hundred years ago, in 1911.

Libya had been set upon, a century ago, to date, by an imperialist Italy following in the footsteps of the Roman Empire that had subjugated North Africa and used it as Rome's granary. The rape of Tripoli at the hands of Italian invaders had sent a shock wave across the Muslim world, which at that stage was largely under western colonial domination and, therefore, unable to do much beyond shedding tears. Allama Iqbal had penned, in remorse and utter grief, some heart-rending couplets to portray the tragedy; the last of the couplets saw the poet presenting the blood of the martyrs of Tripoli to the Holy Prophet of Islam (PBUH) in a vial in Paradise.

The rape of Tripoli and subjugation of Libya at the end of a heroic struggle by its people — led by the legendary Omar Mukhtar — was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. The then European colonial powers, France, Britain et al . were hell-bent on squeezing the last drop of life out of the Ottomans and just winked at Italy rendering their cause a big service in Libya.

So history is repeating itself in Libya. However, as Marx had so aptly observed, this second repetition of it is nothing short of a tragedy. What an irony that whilst a century ago the people of Libya were at one in resisting the European imperialist thrust with their blood under the command of a real freedom fighter, the people of Libya — at least those who have risen in arms against an unyielding dictator — have themselves invited the western military intervention today.

A century ago the capture of Libya by the Italians triggered a chain of events in which Arabs were inveigled into rising in revolt against the Ottomans. The Arab revolt led to the fall of Jerusalem to the British in 1917, prompting the then arch-imperialist British PM, Lloyd George, to boast that it was the “last and most important of Crusades.”

Today, Qadhafi is denouncing the western military assault against his forces as another 'Crusade.' A crusade the current UN-sponsored Operation 'Odyssey Dawn' may not quite be but it's not, at the same time, a purely humanitarian undertaking that every western leader, from Obama to Cameron to Sarkozy insists it's.

Obama is already being hailed by a section of the western media — led, in this instance, by The Economist — for having enunciated an 'Obama Doctrine' with abiding humanitarian concern for oppressed people anywhere as its lynchpin. This was the theme Obama dilated upon at length in his address to the American people on March 29, the day 40 ministers, including those representing Nato countries as well as Arabs from Jordan, Qatar, UAE and Iraq, met in London to plan about what to do next in Libya.

Libya is obviously being treated as a very special case on the scales of humanitarian concern. However, the West is once again caught at an awkward tangent in its profession of humanitarian concern and practice that may not quite square with such concern universally. Had there been the element of universal concern ruling the roost with these champions of humanism, they should be equally engaged in Bahrain and Yemen, which isn't the case.

In Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh's autocratic regime, which is a mirror image of Qadhafi's, isn't being inconvenienced because Saleh is a front-rank ally in the war against Al Qaeda in Yemen. So his excesses against the Yemeni people demanding his political demise are being winked at because of the fear of Al Qaeda capitalising on the situation.

In Bahrain, the humanitarian handicap is more complex. Bahrain has an umbilical cord connecting it to Saudi Arabia, and the latter shudders at the thought of Bahrain's Shia majority taking control of the country, which may, then, quite possibly provoke the Shias on the east coast of Saudi Arabia to be accommodated at the same level. So, Washington has chosen to turn a blind eye to the Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain to the aid of its beleaguered royals. The misery of the Bahraini Shias gets worse because the Saudis take instant fright to their beliefs and perceived links with Iran.

Back in Libya, however, the juggernaut of conquest rolled out by Italy a century ago is playing out to its fullest potential under the US and Nato military lust. The latitude of UNSC resolution 1973 is being used and abused to the hilt. Somebody very aptly asked if Qadhafi's tanks could fly? Why would they, otherwise, be targeted under a 'no-fly zone'? The answer to that is that the UN mandate gives the 'friends' of the rebels the right to deploy any means to protect them against Qadhafi's marauders.But the rebels aren't doing too well against the better-equipped Qadhafi army on the battlefield. So the word from London, on the authority of David Cameron is that the 40-ministers' conclave did mull over the possibility of arming the rebels with western weapons. Obama is believed to have signed a secret order to do just that. Qadhafi, the incorrigible Caligula of our times is whetting the western appetite for an encore of the imperialist era.

However, the western sense of humanism would come alive with full vigour if the nascent movement against Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria spirals into a serious challenge to the regime's power. Syria has been in the gun sights of Washington for decades, especially since the Iranian revolution which brought the two countries into ideological proximity of each other. Moreover, Syria's physical proximity to Israel makes it an automatic target for the neocons and the Zionists.

Against this backdrop one should be quite prepared to the Obama Doctrine getting quickly into its elements, given half a chance in Syria. In his own words, Obama would be 'on the right side of history' in going to the aid of the Syrian people, an overwhelming majority of whom has no sectarian affinity with the ruling Alawites, who are but only a miniscule element of the Syrian demography.

If that comes to pass, history of western imperialism in the Arab world would come full circle. The onslaught begun in Tripoli in 1911 reached its apogee with the fall of Damascus, the jewel in the Ottoman crown, in 1918. The words uttered by the victorious British General Allenby, at the tomb of Salahuddin Ayubi in the heart of Damascus would remain etched forever in Muslim conscience: 'Saladin, we have returned,' hectored a jubilant and beaming Allenby, rubbing salt into the Muslim wounds. One may wonder who would be hectoring this time around; not Obama, we hope?

The writer is a former ambassador.