Rebels Advance Toward Final Battle In Tripoli

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Guest

George Joffe, research fellow, Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University

After months of uneven progress in their effort to unseat Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, rebel forces rapidly advanced across the nation's capital, Tripoli. The rebel army has reportedly arrested at least one of Gadhafi's sons, but so far Gadhafi himself remains out of sight.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away. After months of uneven gains in their effort to push out Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, rebel forces now claim to have taken much of the capital city of Tripoli.

Rebel fighters have reportedly arrested Gadhafi's three sons. Rebels also claim to have taken over the state-run television station. While momentum has shifted dramatically in favor of the rebels, Gadhafi's whereabouts are still unknown. There are reports of counterattacks by pro-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli and intense fighting in some areas.

Many questions remain about how and when any final battle for Tripoli could unfold and if and how the National Transitional Council can transition from a rebel force to a governing body.

Later in the program, what it means to be born in the middle. We'll talk with a researcher and a journalist about their new book "The Secret Power of Middle Children." But first what's next for Libya. With us once again is George Joffe. He's a research fellow at Cambridge University Centre of International Studies, and he joins us from member station KCPW in Salt Lake City. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

GEORGE JOFFE: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Given the current situation in Tripoli, which is obviously moving, even as we speak, do you see any viable options left for Colonel Gadhafi to hold onto power?

JOFFE: Frankly, no. In effect, he's lost control of 80 percent of Tripoli, a city of two million people. Yes, his forces might be fighting back in certain areas, but in effect, they've lost control. And they've lost control not just because of the rebels' incursion into Tripoli that occurred yesterday but because there's been a generalized uprising against his rule that's gone on now for the last two days. And that I think means that it's going to be extremely difficult for him to recover control of the city, and in effect, he can't do it.

ROBERTS: And given all of these defections by Gadhafi loyalists recently, who is left standing with him?

JOFFE: Well, there are still three sons who are standing with him. Three have been captured. One was killed earlier in the conflict. And so they're certainly alongside their father. And then there are also the tribal levies that he had raised - particularly from the center of Libya, from the region of Sirte - that represent a final redoubt, in effect, for the regime.

Then there are some mercenary forces, but they're probably not very effective. And then there are the special battalions that have been used, in fact, to try to suppress the rebellion before.

But they are also isolated. They've been decimated by NATO's bombardments, and they probably lost a lot of morale. But they've got sufficient left to fight back, and I think that's what's happening at the moment inside the city.

ROBERTS: You mentioned, as did I, that there are reports that Gadhafi's sons have been arrested. If they are effectively hamstrung, or at least kept from any sort of ability to launch a counterattack, does that severely cripple Gadhafi's ability to fight back?

JOFFE: I would imagine it does. We know the names of two of the sons. I've not heard the name of the third. But one of them, Saif al-Islam, was in effect running Libya on behalf of his father. And his capture is really very significant.

The second son, Muhammad, who was captured, is not particularly significant. He was the son of Colonel Gadhafi's first marriage, and he didn't have a major role to play inside the regime. He was actually in charge of the telecommunications sector.

The third son is the interesting one. There have been rumors that Colonel Gadhafi's son, Khamis, who was actually in charge of the special battalions, had been killed some time ago. But that appeared to be wrong. If he's the person who's been captured, then that's very significant.

Equally, if it's Moatessem - he is an army officer - that would also be significant. But we simply don't know yet precisely who's involved.

ROBERTS: In the last hour, President Obama said, in a statement, that in order to prevent further bloodshed that Gadhafi had the opportunity to explicitly relinquish power to the people of Libya. Given what you know of Moammar Gadhafi, do you think that's possible?

JOFFE: No, I don't. Colonel Gadhafi has made it clear, all the way through this conflict, that he will not leave Libya. Now, of course, in the extremis, he might well do so, but that's been his declared objective, that he would stay in Libya, he would die there if necessary.

Beyond that, too, it's quite clear that he feels that the rebellion against his system of government is a personal insult. He created a perfect system of governance. He can't really understand why people should have rejected it, and he takes it very personally, indeed.

It's one of the reasons why he's so vehement in the attacks he's made upon the insurgents. Now, given that, it's very difficult for him to actually face the idea that he has to leave, formally renounce power, and I don't think he'll do it.

Hey may be, in the end, persuaded to go South Africa or to Venezuela, two countries that have offered him asylum and protection from the international criminal court, but that will be the very last decision he takes, and I don't think he's ready to take it yet.

ROBERTS: So if Gadhafi will not relinquish power willingly, will not leave Libya willingly, and if the fighting continues to go against him and his forces and in fact the U.S. and other countries have recognized the Transitional Council as legitimate leaders in Libya for weeks now, when does the - when is it official? What actually makes it a change of power from Gadhafi to the rebels?

JOFFE: Oh, I think that's already taken place. In effect, there are 32 countries that have now recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing body in Libya. And they're certainly preparing to try to take over power.

They claim that they've got arrangements with the rebels who actually took control of Tripoli from the Jebel Nafusa, to create an interim government. They have a plan for that, too, using large parts of the existing administration and also the security services to maintain control.

And if they can actually impose that, then of course they are, in effect, the government of Libya. I think Colonel Gadhafi becomes, in effect, the rebellion in reverse.

Now, I think we've reached that point. There's no question of him being able to pull back power or reassert his authority. The question then is whether the National Transitional Council is capable and competent enough to be able to exercise the power it now has.

ROBERTS: What's your answer to that question?

JOFFE: Well, my answer is that it's not clear that it is. It's had great difficulties itself in recent weeks. In the aftermath of the assassination of General Younis, its military commander, at the end of July, there's been considerable upheaval inside the council.

The actual governing instruments that it had created have been dismissed. There's not a new governance structure yet in place. And also the president, Mahmoud Abdel-Jalil, has made it clear that he's quite prepared to go ahead with trying to govern Libya, it's not clear he's got the means by which he can do it.

And beyond that, too, we don't know what actually those who occupy Tripoli really think. They didn't come from eastern Libya. They came from the west, from the Jebel Nafusa. And some of them have a very different agenda from the council itself.

And although they say that they recognize the council's authority, when it comes to actually organizing an administration, that may not be quite so easy. So there are lots of unanswered questions still ahead.

ROBERTS: I do understand that the council has outlined some immediate priorities for security, electrical and water supplies, in anticipation of taking Tripoli. What's your take on the viability of those plans?

JOFFE: Well, the plans I think are viable, that's to say they've got to restore supplies to Tripoli. It's a city of two million people that's been deprived of power, deprived of energy for several weeks now. They need supplies, too. And that can certainly easily be supplied once they've got an effective control over the city.

The real question is whether in fact their decision to maintain elements of the previous regime as the means by which they're going to introduce an administration is going to be acceptable to other elements inside the resistance.

It's quite clear from the troubles that occurred in Cyrenaica, in eastern Libya, that there are elements of the military resistance, particular civilian battalions, who are not at all pleased about the idea of corroborating with previous elements of the previous regime. And that's going to pose considerable problems.

It's part of the problem that Mr. Abdel-Jalil has got in imposing authority. If he can do that, then it'll work; if he can't, it won't.

ROBERTS: And what do you think imposing his authority looks like? How does that actually play out?

JOFFE: Well, that plays out in being able to create a viable administrative structure and particularly a security structure. Earlier on today, he gave a speech in Benghazi when he called for people to engage in reconciliation, not to engage in revenge.

If he can make sure that the fighters on the ground don't do that, that they actually do accept reconciliation, and there's some hope they might because they've not actually engaged in killing opponents in towns they've taken previously, then he probably can make sure, in the short term, at least, that his administration will work.

And don't forget it's only a temporary administration. Its purpose is to prepare Libya for elections, for a constituency assembly, which will then decide what kind of constitution Libya is to have and how it's going to achieve its democratic future. And that's of course the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is that the struggle goes on, that actually we discover that what's happened up to date is simply the first stage of the civil war, and the civil war continues, perhaps outside Tripoli, with the remnants of Colonel Gadhafi's forces fighting a rear-guard action.

ROBERTS: You noted on this program last week that NATO's authorization to act in Libya is coming to an end. If the rebels ultimately take over the country, and there's this transitional period, what's the new role for NATO?

JOFFE: NATO doesn't intend to have a role in the future. It's already running down its operations. It regards its role inside the Libyan conflict as ended. The question then is: Who's going to support the new authorities as they come into being?

And that's really a question for individual nations and also for the European Union. And I emphasize the European Union because Libya is part of its periphery. It's right next door. And therefore what happens in Libya has a direct effect on the southern members of the union. And they're going to have to work out how they can support the transition.

It's really going to be their role that's going to be crucial in this. And beyond that, too, it's not only a question of advising the council on the process of installing democratic processes, it's also a question of reconstructing Libya. There's been an enormous amount of damage done, not just to buildings and cities and to the physical infrastructure, but also to the oil industry. That's got to be rebuilt, and it's going to take months, if not years, to do that.

And in the interim period, somebody is going to have to finance that process. Libya can't from its own resources. Most of them have been frozen. And that means that somebody else is going to have to pay. And the real question is whether Europe is prepared to pay or not.

ROBERTS: George Joffe is a research fellow with the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University. He joined us today from member station KCPW in Salt Lake City. Thank you, as always, for your time.

JOFFE: You're welcome.

ROBERTS: Events are clearly changing rapidly in Libya. Stay with NPR News throughout the day for the latest there. And up next, busting the myths of the middle child. A new book describes middle children as trailblazers and risk-takers. We will talk with the authors, and we want to hear from you.

If you're a middle child, tell us when you realized that that might actually be an advantage. Our number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation on the website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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