Will Sirte be the new Benghazi?

One of the greatest ironies of the Libya war may soon unfold before our eyes — or hopefully not.

The Libyan civil began because of an uprising in Benghazi, and the NATO intervention (supposed to be limited to a no-fly zone) was justified by the prospects of an aerial bombardment of the city. Now, as (with Sebha) the last urban bastion of Qadhadi loyalists, it is the key next target of the rebels. In the WSJ:

BRUSSELS—North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said Tuesday their main focus has shifted to preventing a bloody battle for control of the north-central Libyan town of Sirte, where troops loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi have taken refuge.

The town of 75,000, 245 miles east of Tripoli and Col. Gadhafi's hometown, seems to be shaping up as one of the final stands by Gadhafi loyalists. "It is the last bastion," said NATO Col. Roland Lavoie.

The looming battle between rebels and loyalists poses a tricky question for the coalition: What to do if rebels start killing civilians inside Sirte?

NATO's mission, as mandated by the United Nations, is to protect Libyan civilians. Until now, that's meant taking on Col. Gadhafi's army, a morally clear and unambiguous task.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who leads the rebel National Transitional Council, said Tuesday he would give loyalists in Sirte until Saturday to surrender. Then, he said, rebels would storm the city, according to wire reports.

"We can't wait more than that," he said. "We seek and support any efforts to enter these places peacefully. At the end, it might be decided militarily. I hope it will not be the case."

NATO officials declined to speculate but seemed to indicate they would be ready to shoot to protect civilians, even supporters of Col. Gadhafi. "I will not speculate about how we will react to a given situation," said Col. Lavoie, speaking at NATO's weekly Tuesday afternoon briefing. "But I can assure you that our mission is to protect the civilian population, and we will do that with great care."

A few days ago Craig Murray (the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was fired after he protested about his government's connivance in human rights abuses) blogged this alarming post:

There is no cause to doubt that, for whatever reason, the support of the people of Sirte for Gadaffi is genuine. That this means they deserve to be pounded into submission is less obvious to me. The disconnect between the UN mandate to protect civilians while facilitating negotiation, and NATO’s actual actions as the anti-Gadaffi forces’ air force and special forces, is startling.

There is something so shocking in the Orwellian doublespeak of NATO on this point that I am severely dismayed. I suffer from that old springing eternal of hope, and am therefore always in a state of disappointment. I had hoped that the general population in Europe is so educated now that obvious outright lies would be rejected. I even hoped some journalists would seek to expose lies.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The “rebels” are actively hitting Sirte with heavy artillery and Stalin’s organs; they are transporting tanks openly to attack Sirte. Yet any movement of tanks or artillery by the population of Sirte brings immediate death from NATO air strike.

I have not seen any reports that the rebels are bombarding Sirte using artillery (which is what Qadhafi did to Benghazi when his planes were interdited), but perhaps I missed them. There has been fighting on the outskirts of Sirte but if the WSJ story is accurate, the rebels are holding off from a major assault for now and talks are underway. But they are moving in the direction of Sirte with NATO air support, according to the FT

Libyan rebel forces on Tuesday continued their advance on Muammer Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, the last major stronghold of support for the ousted leader who has not been seen since the capital Tripoli fell last week.

Backed by an escalating Nato bombing campaign, the rebels have advanced past the village of Bin Jawad, east of Sirte, securing the Nawfaliya junction. In the desert to the south, Gaddafi loyalists were also holding out, notably in the city of Sabha.

Reuters also reports NATO bombing on Sirte, although it does not specify the targets:

NATO warplanes struck at Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, for a third day on Sunday, a NATO spokesman said in Brussels. Britain said its aircraft also attacked artillery fired by Gaddafi forces near Sidra, west of the oil town of Ras Lanuf.

Al-Jazeera suggests that the Qadhafi loyalists may not surrender and are telling locals to "fight to the death":

Rebel fighters were organising units advance towards Sirte from both Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad in the east and from Tripoli and Misrata to the west.

"We will move further, but we will not enter Sirte now because it is not secured so far - there are ongoing
negotiations between tribe elders in Sirte and rebel leaders and we are receiving orders from our field
commanders and we are waiting for their commands," rebel fighter Taleb al-Karaty told the Reuters news agency.

Senior rebel commanders said they had 4,000 fighters on the western front with Sirte and that they estimated that they would come up against about 1,000 pro-Gaddafi soldiers if negotiations for the town's surrender fail.

In Sirte, forces loyal to Gaddafi urged people to fight or be killed, complicating efforts to arrange a peaceful surrender of the city, according to NTC officials.

"We have difficulty with the regime people from Tripoli," said Hassan Droy, the NTC representative for Sirte, who is based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

"They're trying to tell the people that the battle is no longer for Gaddafi but to protect themselves," he told Reuters.

Three days ago a message from Gaddafi was broadcast in Sirte, urging people to fight to save themselves, he said.

While the deposed leader's whereabouts are still unknown, the city is a strategic and symbolic prize for Libya's rebel government as it tightens its grip on the vast North African country.

Sirte is where the NATO mandate, already stretched way beyond its internationally approved mission, will be most tested, and where the narrative of just war of liberal interventionism could fall apart. Realistically, the new government in Libya cannot allow Sirte (or other cities) to remain under separate leadership. But having rejected negotiations throughout the civil war (and likewise Qadhafi also rejecting negotiations towards his stepping down), it may not have much desire to negotiate now when it is on the ascendant and the forces the TNC supposedly controls have large degrees of indepedence from the leadership (and could have revanchiste aims). NATO, for its part, could find itself in a position where it has to fire on rebels to fulfil its mission, which would greatly complicate the remainder of TNC-NATO relations. Either that, or decide not to do anything in Sirte if war crimes are committed in the name of bringing the civil war to an end. What a pickle.

For if Sirte becomes the new Benghazi, in the sense that Benghazi faced a massacre last February, the Libyan civil war will have ended with the triumph of a dictator's fall and the shame of having acted just as he did when the tables where turned.

10 Comments

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.