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Debate: Should the West arm Libyan rebels?

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Background and context

In March of 2011, masses of Libyan people began protesting the rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They were brutally suppressed with violent crack-downs and even air strikes against civilians.
The international community responded by implementing a no-fly zone in late March. After the no-fly zone took effect, public officials in the US and in NATO countries began considering the possibility of providing arms to the Libyan rebels. The issues involved include: whether it will have a decisive impact on the rebels' combat abilities and in ousting Gaddafi from power, whether the intentions of the Libyan rebels align well with policy-makers' intentions in the West, what history has to tell us about arming rebels, whether providing such arms would be consistent with international law, and many others. The pros and cons are considered below.
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Impact: Will arming Libyan rebels have a military impact?

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Pro

  • Libyan rebels need more weapons to succeed Fawzi Bukatif, the commander of the Martyr’s Brigade, part of the forces battling Gaddafi, told Al Jazeera: “We’re manoeuvring … we are starting … we are checking what kind of forces they have there but we are standing at Hagela now – almost 100km from Sirte.” But Bukatif said the rebels’ progress was hampered by a lack of weapons, and a reliance on “old Russian weapons”. “The … problem we have is we have run out of weapons,” he said. "You know our weapons are traditional ones; the old ones; the Russian weapons. We need ammunition. We need new weapons. We need anti-tanks; we do not have facilities [but] we have the soldiers left behind by Gaddafi ... “If we do have weapons and ammunitions that we need at the moment, we can move strongly and faster.”[1]
An anonymous U.S. official quoted by The National Journal: "At the end of the day, it’s entirely possible that giving the rebels a boost in arms could, at a minimum, level the playing field.”[2]
  • Gaddafi will recalculate if against endless weapons/money. Fareed Zakaria. "The Libyan Conundrum. Time. March 10th, 2011: "Once Gaddafi realizes that he is up against an endless supply of arms and ammunition, he will surely recalibrate his decisions. There have been reports that he floated the idea of leaving office as long as he is guaranteed safe passage. At a weak moment, he made a plea that he be treated like Britain's Queen or the King of Thailand, a figurehead with no powers."
  • Arms will go to rebels no matter if West provides them. Blake Hounshell. "Should the U.S. arm the Libyan rebels?" Foreign Policy. March 26th, 2011: "there are strong arguments for providing at least small arms. One reason is that weapons are probably going to pour in anyway, perhaps from Egyptian stockpiles or factories and perhaps paid for by Gulf Arab states (indeed, the Wall Street Journal has reported that this is already happening, though Egypt denies it)."
  • Arming Libyan rebels helps deter other dictators Blake Hounshell. "Should the U.S. arm the Libyan rebels?" Foreign Policy. March 26th, 2011: "what was the alternative? To sit back and watch as Qaddafi butchered his own people and re-imposed control over eastern Libya? Then what? And what kind of impact would that have on democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East? Dictators everywhere would learn the lesson that brutality works, and that -- once again -- the words of the international community mean nothing. An early end to the "Arab Spring" could stoke resentment and bitterness for years, with dangerous consequences not only for the region but for Americans and Europeans as well."


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Con

  • Arming Libyan rebels may be unnecessary "Libya: Don't arm the rebels." The New Yorker. March 31st, 2011: "There is time to try to force out Qaddafi by enforcing the no-fly, no-drive zone; enforcing sanctions; and increasing the political pressure on his regime. If it is really necessary to do something more ruthless in order to overthrow him in a timely way, then it would be better to use the elasticity of the U.N. resolution, and the cover of air strikes, to target precisely culpable regime commanders or facilities the Libyan leader values, while quietly communicating ultimatums to Qaddafi and his sons. Precise NATO bombing in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to give up a lot faster than the operations of the Kosovo Liberation Army ever would have—and the K.L.A. looked like the Wehrmacht in comparison to the rebels who have been racing up and down Libya’s highways in recent days. It might not be illegal to arm the Libyan rebels at this stage, but it would be wrong, unnecessary, impractical, and self-defeating."
  • West should protect Libyan civilians, not arm rebels. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says the coalition under his control is clear about its mission. "We are not in Libya to arm people. We are in Libya to protect civilians against attacks."[3]
  • Humanitarian mission needn't involve arming Libyan rebels. "Libya: Don't arm the rebels." The New Yorker. March 31st, 2011: "It might be justifiable to arm the rebels if that were only way to achieve the humanitarian objectives of the intervention. Yet there isn’t any evidence that it would be necessary to do so to defend Benghazi as a sanctuary. It seems clear that Benghazi can be defended from the air by NATO, even if that requires enforcing “no-drive” zones occasionally."
  • Libyan rebels are very hard to train and manage. "This is a nightmare trying to train the Libyans. I tried to do it many years ago," said Robert Baer, a former CIA operative. "These people are very difficult to manage."[4]


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The rebels: Who are they and can they be trusted?

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Pro

  • Prevent extremism/terror in Libya by ending conflict quickly Fareed Zakaria. "The Libyan Conundrum. Time. March 10th, 2011: "Some worry that if we arm the rebels, things might turn out the way they did in Afghanistan, where the freedom fighters became Islamic jihadists and turned their sights on us. But that's not really what happened. After the Soviet defeat, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan, leaving it open to Islamic jihadists backed by the Pakistani military. The better analogy is to Chechnya, where as the civil war continued, the rebels became more radical and Islamic fundamentalists jumped into the fight and soon became its leaders. The best way to prevent al-Qaeda from turning Libya into an area of strength would be to have the fighting end — with Gaddafi's defeat. So let's help the Libyan opposition do it."
  • Libyan rebels show positive signs of being democratic.
  • Rebels represent the democratic aspirations of Libyan protesters.


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Con

  • Arming Libyan rebels risks arming extremists. Adm. James Stavridis, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told Congress that officials have seen 'flickers' of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah among the rebel forces, but at this point no evidence there are significant numbers within the group’s leadership.[5]
  • Unclear what the Libyan rebels are fighting for House Intel Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich: "It’s safe to say what the rebels stand against, but we are a long way from an understanding of what they stand for. We don’t have to look very far back in history to find examples of the unintended consequences of passing out advanced weapons to a group of fighters we didn’t know as well as we should have."[6]


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West interests: Is arming Libya important to US interests?

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Pro

  • US has strong interests in arming Libyan rebels Fareed Zakaria. "The Libyan Conundrum. Time. March 10th, 2011: "Libya is burning. Its people rose, and the tyrant gunned them down. Unless something changes, Muammar Gaddafi and his sons will be able to reassert control over the country amid a mass slaughter of its civilians. This would be a terrible outcome. President Obama has made it unambiguously clear that he wants Gaddafi to step down. The U.S. is actively seeking his ouster. To have him survive would be a humiliation for Washington at a moment and in a region where its words still have great impact. It would also send a disastrous signal to the other rulers of the region — in Syria, Algeria, Iran — that Mubarak made a mistake and that the way to stay in office is to engage in mass slaughter, scare the U.S. away and wait out the sanctions and isolation. America would lose its opportunity to align with the rising forces of the Arab world."
  • Now involved, West should arm Libyan rebels. Roger Cohen. "Arabs will be free." New York Times. March 28, 2011: "Three months later the genie is not only out of the bottle, it’s shattered the bottle. I said of Libya in an earlier column: Be ruthless or stay out. So now the West is in, be ruthless. Arm the resurgent rebels. Incapacitate Qaddafi. Do everything short of putting troops on the ground. Qaddafi, as President Obama has said, “must leave.” So that Libya can be an Arab country that is imperfect but open."


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Con

  • Arming rebels requires training them (greater involvement). "Washington in Fierce Debate on Arming Libyan Rebels." NYTimes. March 29th, 2011: "Some administration officials argue that supplying arms would further entangle the United States in a drawn-out civil war because the rebels would need to be trained to use any weapons, even relatively simple rifles and shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons. This could mean sending trainers. One official said the United States might simply let others supply the weapons."
"Libya: Don't arm the rebels." The New Yorker. March 31st, 2011: "Jon Lee Anderson reports that the number of rebels who are trained fighters is perhaps a thousand; their performance so far, his front line reporting makes clear, suggests that they will not be ready anytime soon to defeat Libyan security forces head on. Perhaps in six months or a year, with substantial training, they could march on Tripoli. But conducting such training and supply, covertly or overtly, would turn the Obama Administration’s intervention from a humanitarian action designed to protect civilians into the promotion of proxy war devoted to regime change, with civilians as prospective collateral damage."
  • Arming Libyan rebels could stir-up hornets nest. Chris Strohm. "5 Reasons to Arm Libya's Rebels ... and Another 5 Reasons Not to." National Journal. March 22, 2011: "It May Stir up a Hornet’s Nest. Some critics fear that arms intended for the rebels could fall into the wrong hands or be used as a recruiting tool by terrorists in the North African region. For example, the group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is active in the region, issued a statement in February calling on all Muslims to support the revolt against Qaddafi in order to install an Islamic regime in Libya."
  • Arming rebels fosters enemies and wars of the future. Glenn Greewald. "The wisdom and legality of arming Libyan rebels." Salon. March 30th, 2011: "The real question is the wisdom of this escalated involvement. How many times do we have to arm one side of a civil war -- only for that side to then become our Enemy five or ten or fifteen years later -- before we learn not to do that any more? I wrote earlier on Twitter, ironically, that one good outcome from arming the Libyan rebels is that it will lay the foundation for our new war 10 years from now -- when Commander-in-Chief George Prescott Bush or Chelsea Clinton announce that we must wage war to stop the Libyan faction from threatening its neighbors and supporting Terrorism (with the weapons we provided them back in 2011). One of the most reliable ways that the posture of Endless War has been sustained is by our flooding the world with our weapons, only to then identify various recipients as our new (well-armed) enemy. Whether this is a feature or a bug, it is a very destructive outcome of our endless and always-escalating involvement in military conflicts around the world."
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History: Does history support arming rebels?

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Pro

  • The US has actually had success at arming rebels. Fareed Zakaria. "The Libyan Conundrum. Time. March 10th, 2011: "Over the past five decades, the U.S. has had very mixed results when it has intervened, by air or land, in other people's wars. But it has done pretty well when it has helped one side of the struggle. Arming rebels in Afghanistan, Central America and Africa has proved to be a relatively low-cost policy with high rates of success. Giving arms, food, logistical help, intelligence and other such tools to the Libyan opposition would boost its strength and give it staying power."
  • A couple of failures in arming insurgents shouldn't dissuade. Barry Farber. "Arm Libya's rebels now!" World Net Daily. March 9th, 2011: "Now let's get ready for the 'historian' who reminds us how enthusiastic we were in 1979 to re-supply a valiant anti-Communist fighter in Afghanistan named Osama bin Laden. Sure, painful. But do you abandon sports after one loss, food after one bad meal or romance after one bad date?"
  • West did good job arming Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that sometimes arming opposition forces can work: "We did a good job in Afghanistan (arming) the Northern Alliance and some of their militias in the south and they were very successful in driving al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and of changing the regime from the Taliban to the Afghan government."[7]


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Con

  • Arming rebels has led to long-lasting instability Roger Cohen. "Arabs will be free." New York Times. March 28, 2011: "The most common outcome of U.S.-funded rebellions has been to create instability and violence that, whether in the form of intractable insurgencies or low-level sectarian fighting, tends to last far longer than whatever political conflict they were meant to resolve. The flood of arms -- particularly the easy-to-use, impossible-to-destroy, grimly effective Kalashnikov rifle variants -- make weapons so prolific and so cheap that terrorism, criminal gangs better armed than the police, and militias of every political and religious stripe are all but impossible to stamp out."


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International law: Is arming the Libyan rebels consistent with i-law?

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Pro

  • UN resolution authorized "all necessary measures." Chris Strohm. "5 Reasons to Arm Libya's Rebels ... and Another 5 Reasons Not to." National Journal. March 22, 2011: "2. U.N. Resolution Authorizes All Necessary Measures. Supporters argue that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya already recognizes that additional measures may be needed beyond a no-fly zone. The resolution authorizes member nations 'to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.'"
  • Legality matters little to arming Libyan rebels. Glenn Greewald. "The wisdom and legality of arming Libyan rebels." Salon. March 30th, 2011: "Ultimately, though, does anyone really think these legal niceties will matter at all if the U.S. decides it wants to arm the Libyan rebels (and yesterday on Democracy Now, University of Trinity Professor Vijay Prashad claimed that one of the key rebel leaders lived in the U.S. -- in Vienna, Virgina -- for the past 30 years, 'a 10-minute drive from Langley, and returned to Benghazi to, in a sense, I think, hijack the rebellion on behalf of the forces of reaction')? If the U.S. wants to arm the rebels, it will do so regardless of whether it violates any U.N. arms embargo, and few supporters of this war -- most of whom justify it by pointing to these U.N. Resolutions -- will care very much, if at all. Once wars begin, and positions harden, nothing matters less than legalities."
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