NATO warns Libyan rebels: If you attack civilians, we'll bomb you too; Update: Qaddafi sends envoy to UK, possibly to discuss exit strategy

If you thought “protecting civilians” was merely UN-speak for “aiding the rebels” (as many of the rebels did), think again. Not only are NATO leaders refusing to arm them, but the fact that they think violence against defenseless people by their putative ally is so likely that deterring it requires a formal warning backed by a threat of bombardment tells you a lot about how suspicious the coalition is of its new best friends. Good thing the CIA vetting process is ongoing; hopefully we’ll find out whether they’re good guys or bad guys before they’re installed in power.

Every news report on Libya these days asks, “Who are the rebels?” An equally important question: Who are the “civilians”?

“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”…

“This is a challenge,” said a senior alliance military officer. “The problem of discriminating between combatant and civilian is never easy, and it is compounded when you have Libyan regime forces fighting irregular forces, like the rebel militias, in urban areas populated by civilians.”…

Noncombatants and the various shades of opposition, resistance and rebellion “are so intermixed that it is not feasible to discern where the boundary between the civilians and opposition forces lie,” the official said. “There are also those civilians entitled to protection that may be armed in order to protect their families, homes, businesses, and communities. Other civilians may join the rebels at certain stages, becoming armed combatants, and then decide to return home for whatever reason, thus transitioning back to civilian non-combatants.”

Qaddafi’s been sending weapons to regime devotees in his hometown of Sirte to defend the city if/when the rebel assault ever comes, so the already murky definition of “civilian” is about to get murkier still. But would the rebels really attack honest-to-goodness civilians for allying themselves with Qaddafi, even if they were unarmed? Spiegel thinks they already are:

Six weeks after the revolution began, Benghazi, capital of free Libya, is descending into mistrust and fear. More stores have closed and most people no longer dare to give out their phone numbers. No one wants to say anything anymore beyond the revolution’s set phrases — nothing against the rebels and nothing against the government in Tripoli. One of many rumors says Gadhafi has spies within the National Council — why else would it be the youth who are now being cut down?…

No one dares to go out at night, as rounds of machine gun fire thunder through the empty streets. National Council members are no longer seen in public and they’re hard to reach for interviews. “There are death squads on both sides,” says Nasser Buisier, who fled to the US when he was 17, but has returned for the revolution. Buisier’s father is a former information minister, but was also a critic of Gadhafi, and his son doesn’t have much that’s positive to say about the new leadership. “Most of them never had to make sacrifices, they were part of the regime and I don’t believe they want elections,” Buisier says. He believes the National Council is on the verge of collapse and once that happens, he’d rather not be in Benghazi.

Buisier is heading back to the US, but is reluctant to say precisely when. He’s afraid he’s been blacklisted. He recently attended four funerals in a single day, for both rebels and regime supporters. Benghazi’s central hospital admits five, sometimes 10, patients each day with gunshot wounds. Two pick-up trucks outfitted with machine guns guard the hospital entrance and photos of missing people adorn the walls.

It is said that 8,000 people in Benghazi were government spies — the rebels found their names in files kept by the secret police. Armed young men roam the streets at night, arresting regime supporters, but private acts of revenge take place as well.

Follow the link for more, including a report that rebels are rounding up black Africans from the sub-Saharan part of the continent on suspicion that they’re mercenaries for Qaddafi. Some are, but others are simply migrant workers; regardless, they’re being beaten and imprisoned or worse. Marco Rubio’s showing a lot of guts in defying popular doubts about the mission and backing Obama on it, but if Spiegel’s right about the National Council evaporating, his call for Congress to recognize them as the true government of Libya will haunt him. For everyone’s sake, I hope they pull it together. Soon.

Update: Amid reports that more top Qaddafi henchmen are looking for an exit — rumors of which first appeared yesterday — a hopeful new note from the Guardian:

Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, visited London in recent days, British government sources familiar with the meeting have confirmed.

The contacts with Ismail are believed to have been one of a number between Libyan officials and the west in the last fortnight, amid signs that the regime may be looking for an exit strategy…

“The message that was delivered to him is that Gaddafi has to go and that there will be accountability for crimes committed at the international criminal court,” a Foreign Office spokesman told the Guardian , declining to elaborate on what else may have been discussed.

Some aides working for Gaddafi’s sons, however, have made it clear that it may be necessary to sideline their father and explore exit strategies to prevent the country descending into anarchy.

The sooner he’s gone, the better, but read the Spiegel piece anyway if you skipped it. Whoever or whatever follows Qaddafi into power, the recriminations between the two sides will be vicious. Sirte, as ground zero for regime loyalists, will be in the crosshairs, with a real risk of a humanitarian crisis developing there in the aftermath. What’s NATO’s move then?

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Jazz Shaw 8:31 AM on December 04, 2022