Thursday, June 30, 2011

French arming Libyan rebels (or The Folly of Arms Embargoes)

It ain't workin'. That's the way you do it:
According to an article in the Wednesday edition of the French daily Le Figaro, France is arming rebel forces to the south of Tripoli in the hope of facilitating a rebel assault on the Libyan capital and the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The armaments, which are being parachuted into the Nafusa mountain region, reportedly include rocket-launchers, assault rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank missiles. According to the Le Figaro report, French authorities decided to undertake direct arms shipments to rebellious Berber tribes to the south of Tripoli due to concerns about a looming “military stalemate.” With rebel forces having thus far proven incapable of advancing on Tripoli from the east, French military planners are now counting on a southern front as “one of the best hopes of the western coalition” to hasten the rebellion’s arrival in Tripoli.
Berbers? They're still around? Indeed they are, and in much stronger numbers than you might think.  One of the dirty little secrets of the Arab world is that a good many people are counted as "Arabs" when they really are not.  Berbers are one example.  Assyrians are another.

Back to the story:
Hitherto, according to Le Figaro,
…the arms transported to the rebels came from Qatar and other Gulf emirates. They were taken by plane to Benghazi, the headquarters of the National Transitional Council, and then by boat to the port of Misrata….
At a mere 135 miles from Tripoli, the strategic port of Misrata represents a rebel-controlled enclave in otherwise government-controlled territory. It has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Libyan civil war.
The Le Figaro report suggests that earlier arms shipments to the rebels likewise originated in France, even if they came via Qatar and other Gulf states. Citing an unnamed “well-placed source,” the paper explains, “If the French army decided to get involved without intermediaries…, this is ‘because there was no other way to proceed….’” The Arab allies apparently lacked the technical capacity to make pinpoint armaments drops in a mountainous region. In the meanwhile, however, the Berber rebel forces are supposed to have set up two runways permitting shipments by small plane from the Gulf states.
If you're following a civil war and want one side to win -- or one side to lose -- a relatively cheap and painless way to advance that goal is to give weapons to your preferred side.  Nothing state-of-the-art, mind you, but typically assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Maybe even basic artillery. Along with the obvious ammunition, food and medical supplies. An easy way to help.  Minimum of expense.  Minimum of lives endangered, at least from your own country.  Minimum of national prestige and credibility on the line.

One problem in this case, though:
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 reasserted an embargo on arms shipments to Libya already established by Resolution 1970. Resolution 1973 is commonly presented as the legal basis for current NATO military action in Libya.
Interesting point here is that the impetus for the weapons shipments are the Arab Gulf states.  It's already known that Egypt has been providing some support to the rebels.  Gadhafi's support in the Arab world must be slim.  But what I take exception to is the arms embargo.

As a general rule, arms embargoes for civil wars are stupid.  I have yet to see one in my lifetime that has actually been effective at promoting peaceful resolution of conflict; usually the result is the exact opposite.  For one thing, they freeze any armament disparity in place, which in the case of a tyrannical government, locks in the natural advantage the government has.  For another thing, it's easy to get around arms embargoes.  All it takes is some dealings with greedy or unscrupulous parties.

Best example is when someone needs a loan.  They typically go to a bank.  But if a bank turns them down, if they are desperate enough, they might go to a loan shark.  Then the problems start to pile on.

Best example I can think of is the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.  To oversimplify things a bit, the Croats, Slovenes and Slavic Muslims of Bosnia (all three groups are the same nationality, really, just differences in religion and alphabet) were tired of being bullied by the Serb-dominated central government of Slobodan Milosevic.  Milosevic had used Serbian nationalism to attain and keep power, to murderous effect.

The sectarian-based provinces of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina took exception and decided to break away from the federal Yugoslavia.  One problem: while rather ethnically-inert Slovenia had a relatively easy time breaking away, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina had significant Serbian minority populations who did not want to break way from a country ruled by Serbs.  Civil war followed.

It was pretty obvious that Slobodan Milosevic and his henchmen, especially Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic in Bosnia, were the bad guys.  Not so much the Serbs themselves, but their leadership, who consistently persecuted and even murdered non-Serbs.  But in an effort to promote a peaceful resolution to the Yugoslav problem, an arms embargo was imposed on all the parties to the conflict.  In supporting the arms embargo, President George H.W. Bush even said there were enough guns in the region.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of those guns were owned by Serbs.  Croatia and Bosnia had an extremely difficult time getting the weapons they needed, with the Western allies largely abiding by the arms embargo, while the Serbian government, still getting weapons from their Russian allies, were confident that their overwhelming advantage in arms would lead to a military victory without the need for any negotiation or compromise at all.  Naturally the war continued.

The Bosnian Muslims, desperate for weapons, turned to the Saudis.  The Saudis were happy to provide weapons to fellow Muslims, but for a price beyond money.  They wanted to push acceptance of their extreme Wahhabist interpretation of Islam into moderate, tolerant easy-going Bosnia, whose Muslim population was a remnant of the Ottoman Empire.  The massive increase in radical mosques and their adherents in Bosnia today shows the true price of those weapons.  Loan sharks, indeed.

Ultimately, Saudi weapons went to Slavic Muslims in Kosovo as well.  More Wahhabist mosques followed.  The Serbs claim that the Slavic Muslims were radical all along; that's why the Serbs were fighting them.  In actuality, this was partly a self-fulfilling prophecy, partly the result of the wrong-headed arms embargo.

Maybe the NATO intervention to remove Gadhafi in Libya would not be necessary if we could just arm the anti-Gadhafi rebels, allowing the Libyan people to remove Gadhafi themselves. 

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