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The Battle for Libya

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
March 1, 2011


The battle for Libya's future continued as mercenaries and military forces faithful to the nation's beleaguered leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, staged counter strikes against several rebel-held cities. According to al-Jazeera, fighter jets are reported to have bombed rebel targets in Ajdabiya and Az Zawiyah. Some opposition leaders dismissed the attacks as acts of desperation (NYT), while others were concerned about Qaddafi's continued possession of powerful weapons. According to the UN, the death toll (CNN) from the political violence has topped one thousand.

The United States repositioned navy and air force assets (Guardian) around Libya, and British Prime Minister David Cameron requested contingency planning for a "no-fly" zone. However, according to AP, Russia's foreign minister dismissed such a tactic, and said the UN should focus on the sanctions already approved. The U.S. Treasury says it has frozen $30 billion in Libyan assets (BBC) -- the largest amount it has ever seized. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called Qaddafi "delusional" following an interview in which he denied the existence of any protests in Tripoli.

Expert commentary continued to focus on the other options for Libyan rule should Qaddafi, in power forty-one years, leave the scene. In a new piece for Foreign Affairs, Frederic Wehrey writes that for decades the outsized personality of Qaddafi has obscured the many rivalries among Libya's domestic groups, from the tribes to the military. Analysts Marina and David Ottaway suggest that unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the departure of Qaddafi from Libya will create a political vacuum that could lead to the complete collapse of the Libyan state. CFR President Richard N. Haass said Libya could end up resembling Somalia, which has disintegrated as a state along clan and tribal lines.

In this op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, CFR's Elliott Abrams discusses the historical context of Washington's relationship with the Qaddafi regime. Daniel Kaufmann of the Brookings Institution writes that for years, the international community and experts got Libya wrong, partly as a result of a Faustian bargain between the West and Qaddafi.

In other Mideast developments, family members of Iranian opposition leaders (WSJ) Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, said they had been arrested and removed to a Tehran prison under the custody of Revolutionary Guards. The move comes the day before planned nationwide anti-regime protests.

In contrast to other Mideast states, economic pressures are less likely to topple Iran's regime, says expert Suzanne Maloney in a CFR interview. Stronger repressive forces and the impact of international sanctions may strengthen the government, she argues.

In Yemen, throngs of protestors mobbed the streets of central Sanaa (AFP) for a massive anti-government demonstration calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In comments to the media, Saleh blamed Israel and the United States for instigating the revolt.

In this op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, CFR's Charles A. Kupchan discusses the natural U.S. anxiety over the process of reformation taking place in the Mideast. He warns that the regimes that emerge from the chaos may well be much tougher customers than the autocracies they replace.

Additional Background

The world's attention has been focused on a handful of countries -- Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya -- since the first popular protests broke out in December. But nearly a dozen countries in the region have seen political unrest, and the protest movement shows no signs of stopping.

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