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Will The Real Libyan Civilians Please Stand Up?

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Though it’s gotten relatively less play than the story about CIA boots on Libyan soil, annother NY Times report answered a crucial question today: whether NATO is backing the rebels (consistent with an invasion where humanitarian concerns are a smokescreen) or backing Libyan civilians (consistent with the R2P doctrine). A lot of discussion centered on whether it would be legitimate to arm the rebels (looks like that’s been ruled out) but the more cogent question from an R2P perspective was always how NATO would deal with ill-treatment of civilian Gaddafi supporters by the rebels themselves in towns they claimed.

And though I was as worried as anyone about how this would play out, once again the answer appears, at least for now, to be reasonably consistent with R2P norms:

As NATO takes over control of airstrikes in Libya and the Obama administration considers new steps to tip the balance of power there, the coalition has told the rebels that the fog of war will not shield them from possible bombardment by NATO planes and missiles, just as the regime’s forces have been punished.

“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.

That’s right: whether you buy it or not, the message is basically: Libyan rebels, if you attack civilians, we’ll bomb you too.

But the Times goes on to spell out the age-old conundrum for weapons-bearers, compounded by the particular nature of NATO troops’ mission: how to identify the “real” civilians for the purpose of carrying out their protective mission, that is, knowing precisely who to target for targeting them:

Who in Libya is a civilian?In the early days of the campaign, the civilian population needing protection was hunkered down in cities like Benghazi, behind a thin line of rebel defenders who were easily distinguishable from the attacking government forces. That is no longer always the case. Armed rebels — some in fairly well-organized militias, others merely young men who have picked up rifles to fight alongside them — have moved out of Benghazi in an effort to take control of other population centers along the way, they hope, to seizing Tripoli.

Meanwhile, fresh intelligence this week showed that Libyan government forces were supplying assault rifles to civilians in the town of Surt, which is populated largely by Qaddafi loyalists. These civilian Qaddafi sympathizers were seenchasing rebel forces in nonmilitary vehicles like sedans and trucks, accompanied by Libyan troops, according to American military officers.

The increasing murkiness of the battlefield, as the freewheeling rebels advance and retreat and as fighters from both sides mingle among civilians, has prompted NATO members to issue new “rules of engagement” spelling out when the coalition may attack units on the ground in the name of protecting civilians.

It was unclear how the rules are changing — especially on the critical questions surrounding NATO’s mandate and whether it extends to protecting rebels who are no longer simply defending civilian populated areas like Benghazi, but are instead are themselves on the offensive.

“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.”

Others are echoing this discourse about the muddiness of civilian protection.

So let’s cut through this fog a little bit. The laws of war on who counts as a “civilian” for the purposes of preventing war crimes are actually fairly simple in this regard. But the truth is it is noncombatants who need protecting, not “civilians” per se.

In war law terms, a “civilian” is anyone falling outside the “combatant status” category which would include regular and irregular forces – that is, all individuals with the right to participate in hostilities and claim POW status if captured. However in practical terms civilians can act as de facto “combatants” without having formal “combatant status.” They do so whenever they take up arms and participate directly in hostilities. Most of the time this is illegal (which is to say, they could be tried for it later, unlike POWs) but in the case of Qaddafi supporters defending Sirte, this would probably be considered under the doctrine of levee en masse, which legitimizes the spontaneous formation of civilians into a defensive force upon the approach of an enemy to the boundary of their town or city.

So long as they are thus engaged, however, they are not noncombatants as far as knowing who to shoot at is concerned. Anyone directly participating in hostilities is a valid military target. So NATO troops would not need to punish rebels for firing at armed Sirte civilians defending the city; nor should they punish those defending the city for firing on armed rebels.

The problem would be with either side targeting noncombatants directly or indiscriminately – civilians not participating in hostilities or, for that matter, former combatants who are no longer doing so. The role of NATO forces should be to prevent the killing of noncombatants in either category, irrespective of technical civilian status or allegiance to the rebels. Whether they’ll be able to walk this fine line is anybody’s guess, but the fact that they’re embracing the complexity of the situation is itself completely consistent with humanitarian rules.

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  • wengler

    So if NATO starts bombing civilians does that mean they will shoot themselves?

    • joe from Lowell

      If a tree falls on a Libyan civilian in the forest, and somebody in NATO hears it…

  • joe from Lowell

    The threat of bombing the rebels is just one way we have of keeping them honest.

    There is also the implicit threat that we will stop helping or even protecting them.

    As well as the ability to incorporate the teaching of norms into the training and leadership we give them.

    • Emma in Sydney

      Jesus. This shit has worked so well in Afghanistan and Irag, hasn’t it? Not to mention Israel. Ruling elites in all of these client states have worked out pretty quickly that there’s virtually nothing they can do, however criminal or corrupt, tyrannical or murderous, that will prompt the turning off of the tap. Why would Libya be any different?

      • joe from Lowell

        “This shit?”

        That sounds like the sort of terminology someone uses when they want to make two different things seem the same.

        Where do you come down on “stuff,” mad’am?

        Ruling elites in all of these client states have worked out pretty quickly that there’s virtually nothing they can do, however criminal or corrupt, tyrannical or murderous, that will prompt the turning off of the tap.

        I don’t think you know it, but you just made an excellent argument for why we shouldn’t have just politely averted our eyes and let the oil dictator slaughter his people.

        • joe from Lowell

          Ruling elites in all of these client states have worked out pretty quickly that there’s virtually nothing they can do, however criminal or corrupt, tyrannical or murderous, that will prompt the turning off of the tap.

          Tell it Hosni Mubarak.

          It’s a whole new day.

        • EJ

          Why do you get so angry? It’s just word games for liberal hawks.

    • Uncle Kvetch

      As well as the ability to incorporate the teaching of norms into the training and leadership we give them.

      “La mission civilisatrice,” Part CXLVII.

      • joe from Lowell

        La mission civilisatrice

        No, not even remotely. It’s called “coalition warfare,” in which pressure from allies curtails military forces’ behavior in order to keep a coalition together.

        Unless you think the Italians had a “civilizing mission” on us during the Kosovo War.

        It’s stunning to me the degree to which the vapid repetition of out-of-context slogans from old, vastly different actions constitute the “argument” of the so-called-anti-imperialists.

        • joe from Lowell

          I love the flip-flopping.

          “We can’t control the behavior of the Libyan rebels! That’s awful!”

          Sure we can.

          “We can control the behavior of the Libyan rebels! That’s awful!”

        • Uncle Kvetch

          The Italians threatened to bomb US troops in Kosovo in order to keep them in line?

          Ya learn something new every day.

          • joe from Lowell

            Do you often hear these voices in your head?

            Tell you what – go read Wesley Clark’s book “Waging Modern War,” and then get back to me.

            • Uncle Kvetch

              Do you often hear these voices in your head?

              That’s twice in the same thread. You really need some new material.

  • wengler

    The warfare in Libya reminds me a lot of the Russian civil war in certain ways. First of all, it is a little weird to western observers. In Russia the Red Army would use armored trains with mounted machine guns and artillery and literally fight from a moving train. In Libya, there are convoys of vehicles with large caliber machine guns and rockets mounted in the back of civilian trucks. Warfare in both of these cases becomes a very linear affair as the roads and tracks define the approaches both sides can take.

    There are plenty of Americans, Brits and Germans still alive that experienced warfare in Libya firsthand. Tanks, artillery and mines were the fundamental elements of that war. With Gadaffi retaining the advantage only in mines, there might be a very strong push to at least supply the rebels with heavier offensive weapons. Of course this would give them the ability to do what people here were concerned that Gadaffi was about to do to Benghazi.

    This is turning into a fine mess. Once again I ask for the ‘interventionists’ to provide their justifications for further involvement in this war.

    • joe from Lowell

      vehicles with large caliber machine guns and rockets mounted in the back of civilian trucks

      The term they use in parts in Africa is “technicals.”

      Once again I ask for the ‘interventionists’ to provide their justifications for further involvement in this war.

      And once again, there is nobody in the city of Benghazi who has the luxury of not understanding that case quite plainly.

      • wengler

        Not that it matters, but I know the term technical, and I used it at first but then changed it in case someone didn’t know what it was.

        Also you have provided a justification for bombing massed armor and artillery outside of Benghazi, but nothing for what’s happening right now.

        • owlbear1

          but nothing for what’s happening right now.

          That’s the beauty of intervening, you only have to justify the first day.

          After that its, “Can’t stop now!”

          • joe from Lowell

            After that its, “Can’t stop now!”

            Whoops.

            You’re going to jump up and down and say how happy you are to have been wrong, right?

            • DocAmazing

              Let’s watch and wait. I’m delighted by Gates’ and Mullen’s announcement, of course, but not having been born yesterday I am extremely skeptical of their commitment to the pullback plan. I’m not delighted that the plan contains a large element of “crouch nearby; resume bombing if asked”.

              • joe from Lowell

                Let’s watch and wait.

                A-freaking-men! I’m so happy to see you write something like that.

                How about making ‘Let’s watch and wait’ a rule of thumb for predictions about the course of this war? Can we do that?

              • DocAmazing

                Too late. Several tons of high explosive have already been rained down on a country that we have no quarrel with; the justification for the action has already been far exceeded. At this point, the patient is hovering near death; “let’s watch and wait” means “let’s not throw any more bombs into Libya in pursuit of victory in their civil war”.

            • owlbear1

              …pull its attack planes out…

              Leaving the tankers, the drones, the surveillance aircraft, and the ‘forward air controllers’ still there.

              “Attack Planes out”. Yep, that’s totally withdrawing!

              And I’m sure you could come up with at least 2 or 3 things pointing out how, “Uh uh, NATO and the U.S. Military are NOT the same force.” So I won’t even bring the up.

              So why did we just spend several billion dollars just to pull out a week later? I thought the civilians HAD to be saved? Leaving now certainly won’t save them from Gaddafi.

              • joe from Lowell

                Yep, that’s totally withdrawing!

                Do you often hear these voices in your head? Are they ever brought on by eating certain foods?

                Pro-tip: “Yep” is usually used to indicate agreement with something someone else has said.

                So why did we just spend several billion dollars

                Did the voices tell you we just spend several billion dollars?

                just to pull out a week later? I thought the civilians HAD to be saved? Leaving now certainly won’t save them from Gaddafi.

                You’re going to want to take that up with the guy who just pointed out that we aren’t pulling out.

                What part of this is so difficult for you? American attack planes are leaving the mission of carrying out the ground strikes to save civilians, which will now be taken over by our allies. What are you having so much trouble grasping?

              • owlbear1

                What are you having so much trouble grasping?

                If you really understand that salivating over gun camera footage of Tanks and Toyota pickups getting blown up isn’t “humanitarian relief”.

        • joe from Lowell

          I remember when Chadians (Chadites?) with technicals routed Libyan military with tanks.

          but nothing for what’s happening right now

          I’m not sure what you mean. Over the past two days or so, the air mission has quite notably not been flying close air support for the rebels. For instance, when they were being chased back to Adjabiya from Sirte, or when they were standing their ground outside of Adjabiya against the military.

          • wengler

            You must’ve missed the part where Tripoli got hit with multiple cruise missiles.

            • joe from Lowell

              Um, the rebels aren’t even remotely close to Tripoli.

              Wikipedia has a good entry on close air support. Long story short, it involves air support against targets that are close.

              The strikes against Tripoli are aimed at the air defense network as part of the no fly zone.

              • joe from Lowell

                Whoops, my bad. Never mind.

    • John

      There are plenty of Americans, Brits and Germans still alive that experienced warfare in Libya firsthand.

      A lot more Italians than Americans. Americans fought in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, but not Libya. There are probably some Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, though. Maybe some Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, too.

      • wengler

        Point taken. The two battles I automatically thought about were Tobruk and El Alamein. Of course the first was the only one in Libya, and both were British operations.

        There are plenty of Americans that served in the large Air Force base constructed in Libya after the war, though. The evacuation of which in 1970 is still celebrated as a holiday there.

  • Pingback: Good News (For a Change) on Libya | Elia Isquire()

  • Robert Farley

    Heh. I just got the title.

    • ploeg

      But if the real Libyan civilians stand up, they’ll be seen.

    • bjt

      it is a catchy title

  • Lurker

    In Libya, differentiating between a “civilian” and a “military serviceman” is even more difficult than, say, in the US. Libya has conscription. This means that a large part of Libyan adult males have military experience and training. In addition, a country with a large reserve and legislation for a draft can conduct a mobilization, multiplying the size of its armed forces.

    This “handing out assault rifles to civilians” might, depending on the actual Libyan legal framework, be a “mobilization”. Thus, a person is drafted and then gets is government-issue kit, consisting of an assault rifle, ammo and, perhaps, identifying insignia. This makes him a serviceman, in a legal sense.

    Similarly, a National Guard member becomes a military person when ordered to active duty, even if it is only a weekend-exercise. On Friday, he is a civilian, working in his day job. The moment he puts on a uniform and reports to duty, he’s a combatant. On Monday, he’s back to work, as a civilian non-combatant.

  • Simple mind

    Looking a images on CNN, those costal Libyan towns look(ed) wealthy to me. Nice villas and condos, shops, public lighting, a power grid, paved roads, public drinking water, etc. -all now in ruins. NATO may be high on R2P, but tens of thousands have lost everthing, with no recourse. Who’s going to pay for that?

    • joe from Lowell

      It’s estimated that Gaddaffi has $30 billion in “assets” he’s looted over the years, which have been frozen.

      • wengler

        Ah, we’ve played this game before. ‘The war will pay for itself’.

  • THE Invisble Hand

    Who’s going to pay for that?

    Why me, of course.

    • Paul Campos

      Subject to notably rare exceptions.

  • evil is evil

    In all of the lunatic babbling about Libya, one simple fact has emerged untouched. It is the Libyans’ country.

    Why not ask them what they want?

    • DocAmazing

      Because we know better! We asked the UN, and we asked the Arab League, and then we did what we wanted to do anyway.

      “Self-determination” is such a dated concept, n’est-ce pas?

      • ema

        (sorry for the OT)

        The second I read this story (and, via, became aware of this) I thought of your comments on these odious fetal homicide laws.

    • RedJenny

      Which them?

      • wengler

        Masters don’t need to ask their servants what they want. They already know what they want.

        As Barbara Bush said in the Astrodome to an evacuee staying there with thousands of others and living high off of bottled water and emergency rations, “This is working out really well for you, isn’t it?”

        They KNOW we are just a bunch ingrate, thieving, parasitic bunch. And you never ask them what they want. You tell them what to do and stomp your boot on whoever dares to talk back.

    • Didn’t they ask for help in the first place? The rebels, at least.

  • wengler

    Who wants to bet that the Obama administration does a legal end-around here? He’s already done it in other countries by allowing the CIA a level of military lethality in drones that they never had before. But in Libya it’s clear that a small special operations force backed by planes could take out a lot of Gadaffi’s forces on their own.

    It could be the first fully privatized war. A beautiful destruction dedicated to the gods of the free market. A country run by transnational oil corporations and securitized by mercenaries. And once again Christian fundamentalists wrapped in the American flag can shoot Muslims and make videos of it to crack up their friends on YouTube.

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