Remembering Libya: A Year Later

February 15, 2012

The Recap

One year ago today, protests broke out in Libya. The sitting ruler at the time, Muammar Qaddafi, responded to the popular discontent with violence on a scale and trajectory that had not yet been witnessed during the Arab Spring. On February 23 — nine days after the protests first began — it was estimated that Qaddafi’s attacks had killed at least 1,000 civilians. The use of fighter jets and heavy artillery in major urban areas, like Benghazi and Tripoli, was particularly disturbing.

At first, the protest movement was peaceful. However, in the face of Qaddafi’s ongoing attacks, some of the protesters transitioned into armed resistance fighters. Despite the formation of an armed opposition, Qaddafi’s overwhelming firepower had nearly beaten the rebels entirely. Attacks centered on Benghazi, indiscriminately targeting opposition fighters and the civilian population alike. As the loyalist forces closed in, a large-scale massacre appeared imminent.

In an unprecedented move, the Arab League recommended that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approve a “no-fly zone.” The UNSC passed two resolutions 1970 and 1973. The latter came just days after the Arab League request for military action and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. On March 19, an international coalition led by NATO began implementing a no-fly and no-drive zone, targeting Qaddafi’s planes and ground attack forces. The annihilation of Benghazi was averted, but the civil war escalated. Supported by NATO airstrikes, the rebels slowly began the process of overtaking areas held by forces loyal to Qaddafi.

By August 22, opposition fighters had largely gained control of Tripoli, leaving Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte as the leader’s last stronghold. Sirte fell on October 20. Qaddafi was found and killed, marking the end of the war.

The effort to end Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians is not without criticism. NATO, and the Arab allies that participated in the military mission, were accused of overstepping the UNSC mandate. The rebel forces were accused of serious human rights violations and crimes against civilians. Qaddafi was never brought to trial, but — instead — was most likely executed. The NATO airstrikes themselves were responsible for civilian deaths. And, nearly four months after the end of the war the work to secure peace and democracy is not over — not by a long shot. In fact, it’s really just beginning.

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