from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Libya: The Coming Break Up?

July 19, 2011

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A Libyan rebel gestures at the frontline, 60 km (37 miles) west of Ajdabiyah (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters)

My friend, Karim Mezran, the director of the Centro Studi Americani in Rome weighs in on U.S. recognition of the Libyan Transitional National Council.

Last Thursday (July 14), the Washington Post ran  an editorial advocating what many have long pressed the Obama administration to do: recognize Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) (as the rebels’ government is called) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people . This legal and diplomatic recognition allows the TNC to claim access to the billions of dollars of Libyan assets frozen in many Western countries.  Although many legal obstacles remain, all agree that recognition constitutes a major step  in this direction.

Is this really a good idea? Most of the objections  to recognition have focused on the risk of recognizing a rebel government before it has conquered the capital of the state,  creating a dangerous precedent or emphasized the ambiguous background of some of the TNC’s members or questioned their democratic credentials.  These concerns also include potential radical Islamist influences within the Council or its relative vulnerability to the many militias that are springing up all over the eastern part of the country.  For those who have advocated for recognition, these are all valid issues, but are either easily overcome or ignored. The Post declares that the Benghazi based administration “has shown itself to be moderate and responsible” and that “it has committed itself repeatedly to an agenda of democracy and personal freedoms” despite many reports to the contrary.  Human Rights Watch, for example, has raised questions about the rebels’ commitment to basic human rights and there is credible evidence that prisoners in TNC-controlled jails have been tortured.

There are, however, other reasons why the United States should not have offered official recognition to the TNC, notably the increased risks of splitting the country. The situation on the ground is stalled. The rebels in the western mountains are strong enough to control some villages, but definitely not enough to mount an attack on Tripoli. The forces in the East have made little real progress in weeks.  The recent liberation of Brega though very important does not alter significantly the situation on the ground. Defectors from the Libyan army have expressed skepticism that the rebel army can ultimately prevail. All of this, coupled with the wavering European engagement, leads to affirm that the only way to get out of this impasse is to negotiate directly with Qaddafi.

Anyone who knows the Libyan leader knows that he respects only one power, the United States of America.  To be effective, the Americans should be able to exercise strong influence on both sides to force them to accept a negotiated solution, though recognition of the TNC has weakened Washington’s position. Recognizing the rebel’s government has outraged Qaddafi and his supporters, while at the same time depriving the United States of a powerful tool to pressure the TNC into accepting a possibly unpopular negotiated solution. Moreover one has to be wary that, the TNC may feel a duty to reward the people of the eastern provinces who have suffered much in the last month. In other words, while the situation on the ground remains stalled, the TNC may prefer to spend and invest resources in the reconstruction and strengthening of the liberated zones thus decreasing the war efforts to liberate Tripolitania. The unintended consequence of this policy would hasten the breakup of Libya. This would be the worst possible outcome of recognizing the TNC.