Arming Libya's Rebels: A Debate in Doha

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Fadi Al-Assaad / Reuters

Delegates attend the first international contact group meeting on Libya in Doha April 13, 2011

Guns, money, oil, and an ex-spy chief slinking in the shadows: that's what it came down to Wednesday in Qatar's capital Doha when the NATO-led alliance marshaling air strikes on Libya gathered to defend its actions and brainstorm on how to help a ragtag rebel army finally dethrone Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. The coalition dismissed recent criticism and claims of inner discord with an early statement that the "international community remained united and firm in its resolve." The same statement boasted that the alliance's "efforts to date had exerted significant pressure on Gaddafi, protected civilians ... from violent attack and averted a humanitarian disaster."

The matter of providing weapons, however, proved contentious. The so-called Contact Group on Libya, which includes top-level emissaries from the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and the Arab League, disagreed over whether international law could, or should, permit the supply of lethal arms to the rebels, even for self-defense.

In a debate-setting opening address, Qatari crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said "The main aim of our meeting is to help the Libyan people decide their own fate...and to help the Libyan people defend themselves so they can decide on their future." The prince was quickly supported by Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor al-Thani who clarified: "Yes, the statement is in line with certain circumstances when it is accepted to provide people with the means to defend themselves. Our interpretation is that to defend yourself, you need certain equipment to do that."

The Qataris, who have sent warplanes to support the no-fly zone, were supported by Italy's foreign minister Franco Frattini, who told reporters that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which sanctioned military means to protect civilians, does not prohibit the provision of arms for self-defence. Frattini said it is "morally justified" to give Libyans the means to protect themselves. "When Gaddafi is hiding tanks in the streets to prevent NATO air strikes, and we can't stop them from being brutally attacked by tanks and bombs, then either we make it possible for them to defend themselves or we withdraw our commitment to helping them."

Others disagreed, for complicated reasons. The day before, the U.K. had criticized NATO for not being more pro-active in supporting the rebels in disabling Gaddafi's military. However, William Hague, Britain's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, claimed that only non-lethal weapons would be supplied to the rebels by the United Kingdom. Belgian Foreign Minister went further, telling reporters "The U.N. resolution speaks about protecting civilians, not arming them."

The most salient absence in the debate was that of Libyan ex-spy chief and foreign minister Moussa Koussa, who arrived in Doha on the purported mission of advising the conference on the workings of the Gaddafi regime. Indeed, while Koussa's arrival in Doha was confirmed and his presence in sequestered five-star sites above the proceedings was rumored, he was nowhere to be seen or heard at the summit. Koussa had no official role in the meetings and Sheikh al-Thani declared "He was not invited." Britain's Hague said Koussa took part in "wider meetings" but did not elaborate.

The Doha talks were attended by the political arm of the Libyan rebel movement — the Transtional National Council — the first time the opposition government was officially represented in a multi-national meeting. (The TNC had representatives in London two weeks ago but not on the same level as Doha.) The rebels called for more NATO air strikes on Gaddafi redoubts and claimed that Libyan civilians needed more protection. Perhaps as a consequence, in it's closing statement, the contact group gave the interim rebel government its biggest boost yet for international recognition, saying: "The [council] is a legitimate interlocutor, representing the aspirations of the Libyan people."

Shiekh al Thani said discussions with the Libyan rebel leaders focused on the current military and humanitarian situation in Libya, allowing the contact group to "re-assess what we did well as a coalition and what we did not... The most important thing is that the Libyan public know the international community is following up on what's happening to them."

These claims were supported by grisy facts provided by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. According to U.N. findings, roughly 490,000 Libyans have fled the fighting between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists and more than 330,000 others have been internally displaced. "Under our worst-case scenario, as many as 3.6 million people could eventually require humanitarian assistance," said Ban, who called for financial support for the rebels and urged the international community to "speak with one voice."

Funding the rebel movement, perhaps with the sale of weapons, was a prime concern of Wednesday's meeting. Announcing the launch of a "Temporary Financial Mechanism," coalition officials said the rebels would be given access to cash belonging to the Gaddafi regime currently frozen in European banks. Furthermore, it was proposed that oil sales would be facilitated and the proceeds funneled to the rebel cause.

Qatari state-run media reported on Tuesday that Doha had joined France and Italy as the only nations to recognize the opposition council as a legitimate governmen. It also said that Qatar had brokered the sale of one million barrels of crude oil on behalf of the rebels. Shiekh al Thani said: "We are determined to finish this mission as the Libyan people expected."