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Were NATO strikes on Gaddafi’s home town justified?

October 12, 2011

Britain’s defence secretary, Liam Fox, sounded a little scripted in Misrata at the weekend when I asked him whether NATO’s airstrikes in Muammar Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte were staying within its remit to protect civilians in Libya.

“NATO has been extraordinarily careful in target selection.”

“NATO has been very careful to minimize civilian casualties.”

“NATO has stayed within its mandate throughout.”

It’s a mantra that NATO, and the countries that have contributed to its Libyan adventure, have had to learn well.  They’ve been accused of stretching the legality of the mission “to protect civilians by all necessary measures” before.

But the problem with sticking to a script, is that the Libyan conflict hasn’t really progressed with any sort of predictable narrative since the fall of Tripoli on the night of August 23rd.

If the then rebels of the now ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) expected that internal insurrections would help them and they’d race into Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and the other remaining holdout, Bani Walid, to a hero’s welcome, they were mistaken.

Sirte and Bani Walid were not Tripoli. They resisted  — and resisted ferociously.

Taken aback, fighters loyal to the NTC began drawn-out sieges of both towns, battering them with rockets, mortars and tanks as Gaddafi loyalists hit them with intense sniper and rocket fire.

And all the while, the NTC men were backed by NATO warplanes.

Now it’s not only the usual critics saying that NATO has overstepped the mark. It’s terrified Libyans fleeing Sirte with tales of dead relatives, weeks of little food and houses demolished by rockets.

“What did America and NATO bring to us? Did they bring apricots?” one man shouted at a Reuters journalist in Sirte last week.  “No, they brought us the shelling and the strikes. They terrorised our kids.”

It’s war, some officials say privately. It’s always messy towards the end. But civilian deaths have been kept to a minimum and the country’s infrastructure has been left largely intact, giving the economy a chance to get moving quickly. They could have surrendered, NTC commanders point out.

NATO says that remnants of the Gaddafi regime pose a threat to civilians and it will support NTC operations for as long as that threat remains. They say Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte had kept people there as human shields and executed anti-Gaddafi residents – stories echoed by some fleeing the city.

For NATO’s detractors, it’s hard to see how launching airstrikes on a city already under heavy shelling from the NTC and with no power and little food amounted to protecting the people who lived in it.

Liam Fox was sure where the blame for the suffering lay.

“There wouldn’t be any NATO strikes if it had not been for the fact that Gaddafi was threatening his own population and threatening a civilian, humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi,” he told me, adding that the people of Sirte may need to be given “some information” on why the siege played out as it did.

The risk now is that a people embittered by weeks of misery and the deaths of their friends may turn on the young government, making it difficult to stabilise the country and get it properly running again.

Also, it seems true that many of them are sorry to see Gaddafi go – some because of tribal allegiances, some because their city benefitted from his position and some simply because they admired him.

One loyalist captured at the hospital in Sirte kept a photo of the ousted leader in his pocket.

For NATO, the worst-case scenario risks turning an operation it heralds a success, into an embarrassment.

“It was more than I expected,” I heard Fox say to his NTC hosts over lunch in Misrata, referring to the wreckage wrought by Gaddafi’s merciless bombardment of that city after it was taken by the NTC.

The pictures emerging from Sirte as it enters endgame suggest its devastation will be similar.

What that will mean is the question.


No, NATO’s strikes were not justified. NATO violated its own mission to protect civilians when it took sides: some civilians were worth protecting, others such as Gaddafi supporters were bombed. There are plenty of anecdotal reports from Sirte about the adverse consequences of NATO’s bombing for civilians. Moreover, NATO should have remained impartial rather than taken sides. It’s support for the rebels translates into support for the rebels’ documented war crimes against black Africans, including fellow Libyans, and suspected “loyalists”. Europe and the US have betrayed all principle in their greed for oil. My heart goes out to those who have had to pay the price, like the 3 year old in the bombed and shelled Sirte hospital with two broken legs and a damaged eye. I had thought that Europeans had given up war as a means to solve conflicts; looks like they have not given up war when it is waged against the countries of the South. NATO should be prosecuted for the war crimes it has committed as should the so called rebels it used as on the ground proxies for European soldiers. This is not an “embarrassment”; it is carnage and destruction of infrastructure, people’s houses, hospitals, schools; NATO should foot the bill for reconstruction and pay reparations to those families affected. Right now its priority should be getting black Africans out of jail and making sure that prisoners are not being tortured, raped, abused, dehumanized. The NATO mission in Libya makes a mockery of the “civilization” that the heirs of the Enlightenment claim to represent. The civilized do not maim, hurt, kill small children.

Posted by zaydin | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Malone: thanks for posting this story. There is little in the press on this topic.

Posted by zaydin | Report as abusive

I am sure that Mr Liam Fox would love to see his own house pulverised as long “it is justified.” Equally, smart media fabrications have also concluded that the Bombing of London, Desden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima “had been justified’ because “it had saved lives”.

Posted by Renox | Report as abusive

NATO’s intervention in Libya is without a doubt a fiasco. No one understands how this military alliance meant to defend Europe against Soviets came to mingle into Libyan internal affairs. Hey, why don’t we send NATO forces to to Mexico to fight the war on drugs – a trade we defend in Afghanistan?

Posted by jerrylee1 | Report as abusive

Has NATO has stayed within its mandate?

NATO has no mandate. NATO wasn’t mentioned in UNSC R 1970 or 1973. Neither was bombing.

The entire war has been fashioned out of thin air, with considerable assistance from mainstream media including Reuters. It’s illegal, murderous and utterly evil.

Participation in this unprovoked act of aggression against a sovereign nation is a war crime if the term has any meaning any more.

Posted by SydWalker | Report as abusive

Whats going on there is completely a mockery of NATO’s mandate shelling a city indiscriminately like we are seeing NTC & NATO do is immoral and borders on crimes against humanity…looking at sirte the city is ruin for a month now the siege has yet to bear any fruits the humanitarian crisis is at its peak how is NATO protecting civilian if they are contributing to the mass killing of Gaddafi supporters.

someone said when hunting for a beast be very careful not to turn into one..I think in this case its too late.

Posted by abdhalla | Report as abusive

the NATO bombings were absolutely justified. Yes it is a tragedy for the people whose houses are being bombed because they harbor pro-gaddafi fighters but that is the nature of war. Doesn’t anyone recall when gaddafi shot and killed hundreds of protesters just because they were protesting? i bet the people who were getting shot at then are pretty damn glad that NATO intervened. NATO has been hitting military targets. there are no huge dumb bombs being dropped all over cities, just precision airstrikes. in my opinion its better to get this whole ugly war business over as quickly as possible. without NATO assistance, there would be a long drawn out civil war. Remember the American civil war? i bet if France or England or someone had helped out one side then thousands and thousands of lives could have been saved. I guess the main point is that people is a necessary evil of war, its a dirty business, all that can be done is to minimize the carnage. The Libyan people don’t want to kill civilians as much if not more than we (NATO) does. Eventually everyone has to be reintegrated under whatever regime pops us at the end of this mess.

Posted by vothmr | Report as abusive

Obviously we’re sitting on the wrong side of the fence. NATO is a pawn of U.S. and west, consequently U.N. was useless in trying to tie their hands. With over 50,000 casualties and total devastation of some cities, did NATO really “protect” civilians or protect NTC rebels who were a ‘rag-tag” army that couldn’t stand vs Gaddaffi’s troops. Oil is the name of the game an d Western allies will be lining up for reconstruction projects paid for in “black gold.”

Neat world we live in, eh?

Posted by tod | Report as abusive

I just don’t understand how these rebels have some of the updated weapons in their hands when these political leaders are crying out loud that they are fighting the terrorism. Just like in Irak, this end will be very sad…

Posted by JJ1234 | Report as abusive

NATO is always looking for a fight, and Libya episode is a shame to the western uncivilized attitude. This will hunt them for generation to come.

Posted by Teluu | Report as abusive

Must have been an incredibly slow news day. Ask the same questions for months. Get the same answers. Try and make that a story. Lame.

Posted by StephenManion | Report as abusive

Nato in Libya equals oil for Nato countries and their war planes. No oil in Zimbawia so Mugabee you are safe. Nice one Nato this means I can still fuel my gas guzzling SUV brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrum. What country can we topple nest for oil as Libyas wont last for ever. any suggestions guys? Im serious, at least I speak the truth!

Posted by thetruth7 | Report as abusive

Lets cut all the nonsense of NATO mission to protect civilians. This was NATO’s mission to assassinate Gadaffi and thats exactly what they did plain and simple.

Posted by Wenzile | Report as abusive

Muammar al-Qaddhafi was a murderer and a pillager. As such, he – and all who helped him (actively and passively) – were fair game. Al-Qaddhafi viewed other Libyans as his “property”, with whom he could do as he pleased.

Al-Qaddhafi chose to “hole up” in Sirte, rather than to surrender. He could have taken refuge at a military base, where civilians would not be at risk from the inevitable shoot-out.

While some in Sirte likely did not back al-Qaddhafi, the destruction they suffered will be a long-lasting lesson. Those, who do not stand up to a dictator, may be swept away with him.

Germans understand this. The horrendous destruction inflicted on Germany during World War II, to this moves Germans to reject political extremists. Indeed, a specific unit of the German government – the Bundesamtes für Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution) – watches all extremists carefully.

Those, who defend al-Qaddhafi – or criticise NATO for having helped Libyans to oust him – embrace al-Qaddhafi’s approach: murder and pillage.

Libyans will benefit from his decision to fight to the end. That fight thinned the ranks of democracy-haters. Had al-Qaddhafi surrendered quietly, thousands of his henchmen would have survived, to poison Libya for many more years.

Further, during their months-long fight for freedom, many Libyans acquired skills with firearms, e.g., battle rifles, pistols, shotguns, etc. I pray they’ll be smart enough not to surrender these to anyone. While explosives (artillery shells, grenades, missiles, etc.) are dangerous, especially if stored badly, firearms – if securely stored – are quite safe.

Because Libyans lacked weapons and the skills to use them, they had to have help to oust al-Qaddhafi and his accomplices. If Libyans are to remain free, they must remain armed. Those, who urge Libyans to disarm, simply cannot grasp that dictators flourish, when their victims are disarmed.

As to Mugabe, South Africa should deal with him. It bespeaks South Africa’s insensitivity to Zimbabweans’ sufferings, that they have not ousted Mugabe. It is ironic, that South Africans, who got much foreign help to free themselves from Apartheid tyrants, will not reach out to help neighbors, who groan under Mugabe’s pillaging.

Dictators deserve death. Those, who provide that, deserve our praise, for they liberate the oppressed.

Posted by Hardliner | Report as abusive

“Were NATO strikes on Gaddafi’s home town justified?”
Of course. Unless Sirte was prepared to be starved into submission to protect Gadaffi’s miserable skin, and the moralisers willing to watch.
The revolutionary forces pleaded on behalf of the residents of Sirte with Gadaffi’s frontmen for months, but they made almost no concessions to the general welfare. Gadaffi’s neck was more valuable. After that, the sooner it ended the more lives were saved.
As for the bombing itself, the details are far from clear. Much o9f the so-called ‘residential’ areas struck were in fact either evacuated or not even finished. And the attack on Sima hospital is a legal minefield for Gadaffi aplogists, since his forces were installed within, making it a military target.

Posted by Biginabox | Report as abusive

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