Stopping the Fifth Column

How to end a post-Qaddafi insurgency in Libya before it starts.

The imminent fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya opens a world of possibilities for Libyans that would have seemed almost impossible a year ago. But scenes of rebels and their civilian supporters celebrating in Tripoli's Green Square and in Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound should not obscure the still volatile situation in Libya. Even before Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi's cameo appearance at the Rixos hotel on Aug. 21 made it clear that the war was not yet won, triumphant declarations were premature. Toppling a dictator is difficult; stabilizing a country and building a functional government is much harder. Not only is the rebel coalition internally divided, but now battlefield compatriots must make the transition to become political allies -- and, just as importantly, political opponents -- without devolving into violence. Libyans must avoid the fate of Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade: two countries where ruling cliques were removed from power with similarly remarkable speed, but subsequently stumbled into civil war and long-running insurgencies.

The triumph of Libya's rebels over Qaddafi loyalists in Tripoli and elsewhere represents a genuine victory by the Libyan people over a corrupt ruling elite. But the narrowness of Qaddafi's power base should not obscure the fact that there are losers in this revolution -- enough of them to plunge Libya into a protracted insurgency if the postwar period isn't handled properly. Like Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi favored some tribes over others during his rule: Libya specialists point to the relatively small Qaddafa tribe and elements of the much larger Magariha tribe (reportedly Libya's second largest) as clear beneficiaries of the eccentric autocrat. Just a small cadre of Qaddafi loyalists or disillusioned tribesmen could be a major impediment to Libya's future. Even relatively isolated attacks on oil infrastructure or factions within the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC) could have destabilizing political and economic effects. In an unstable environment, a little violence can go a long way. Supporters of the old regime may be in no position to seize power, but they might be able to play spoiler.

For better or worse, the NTC and their supporters in European and North American capitals do have a number of relevant case studies to learn from: Algeria in the 1990s, Egypt and Tunisia in recent months -- and, of course, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which both offer a litany of lessons for what not to do when replacing a tyrannical government:

Do not put Western boots on the ground. Although reports of British and French special forces supporting Libya's rebels have circulated for months, these specialized troops have done a remarkably good job of staying out of the limelight. Their assistance to the NTC fighters has no doubt been a force multiplier both militarily and politically, but it is their ability to remain in the background that will prove critical in the phase ahead when the wide array of rebels and Qaddafi loyalists must chart a path forward that is deemed credible and authentic by both the winners and losers of Libya's revolution.

Although Western troops have played critical roles stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, their presence on the ground also serves as a rallying cry for nationalists intent on resisting change violently. The Western coalition has facilitated the fall of Qaddafi with much subtler tools than it used to overthrow either the Taliban or Saddam. It should keep things that way. If foreign troops are needed for training, advisors from Qatar or other Arab states should take the lead, but even those roles should be limited and apolitical.

Put people to work, especially soldiers and technical experts. In the annals of recent U.S. foreign-policy history, it is difficult to think of a more disastrous decision than Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 2. That edict, issued on May 23, 2003, put 250,000 Iraqi soldiers and police out of work. This not only undermined one of the few national institutions in which Iraqis took great pride, but also immediately created a large cadre of disillusioned and reasonably well-trained young men primed for criminality and insurgency. Qaddafi's security forces and state apparatus are not nearly so large or capable as Saddam's were in Iraq, but the basic point still holds. Rank-and-file Libyans who fought in organized units for Qaddafi should be incorporated into the post-Qaddafi state structure -- as should fighters from the full range of rebel factions. Loyalist leaders should be vetted and, if necessary, tried and punished, but units as a whole should be shown respect and offered a place in Libya's future. Moreover, individuals with specific technical skills -- budget experts, petroleum engineers, port managers, and the like -- need to be identified and offered a paycheck.

Treat the defeated leadership with respect. No matter how just their cause may have been, there is little doubt that many of Libya's rebels fought Qaddafi's forces to avenge past grievances. Such is the nature of revolution against repressive autocrats. Revenge can motivate in war, but it is less valuable when building peace. It is crucially important to allow low-level Qaddafi government officials a chance to develop a private life in the new Libya. After the fall of the Taliban, Afghan government officials and tribesmen who had suffered under the previous regime harassed their erstwhile tormenters, which in turn spurred the Taliban insurgency that rages today. Officials guilty of crimes should be charged, tried, and punished transparently (and in some cases, severely), but other bureaucrats must be allowed to normalize their life. This is not solely a matter of human rights, but of future security as well.

Don't forget about the police. Demobilizing the ad hoc rebel forces who have been waging a fierce guerrilla campaign since February will be difficult, and the natural impulse will be to put the ex-guerrillas into a new Libyan army. This is part of the answer to Libya's inevitable security challenges, but only a part. Stability in the new Libya should be based in civilian security structures, above all reliable police forces. The international community in particular should invest resources into effective policing immediately rather than focusing on traditional military forces.

Again, a look at recent history suggests just how bad the alternatives can be. The Iraqi Interior Ministry became home to terrifying Shiite death squads that meted out awful punishments to Sunnis and were a key ingredient in the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq in the years immediately following the coalition invasion. In Afghanistan, police units are still weak, and the failure of the judicial sector writ large continues to be a source of instability. Neither the NTC nor their foreign backers should wait five years to make effective policing a priority, as the world did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Buy back the guns. The fragmented Libyan rebels are rightfully considered freedom fighters, but the risk that a portion of that coalition has links with al Qaeda is real. And there is no doubt that militants of various stripes will converge on Libya to buy weapons for various purposes. The most dangerous of these are the reported stocks of Libyan man-portable surface-to-air missiles, but smaller arms have done damage enough across Africa and beyond.

Staunching the flow of these weapons out of Libya is a Sisyphean task, but one the international community should embrace nonetheless. At a minimum, a program to purchase these weapons from Libyan factions will raise their market price. No doubt some will question the cost of such a program, but in the long run such an effort is a relatively low-cost, high-return investment. If Libyan weapons are used in a terrorist attack in Egypt or to target a Western airliner, we will regret not being more aggressive now.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done -- after all, experts offered similar warnings in the early days after the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The key is to identify social and political groups with real power and allow them to negotiate Libya's future in a structured manner rather than impose a vision from abroad or allow narrow domestic factions to monopolize government authority. Minimizing the chance of an insurgency by the disempowered in Libya will be as much art as science. And that, perhaps, is the best lesson for both NTC leaders and their supporters in the international community to take away from Iraq and Afghanistan: Treat the challenges in Libya with humility and respect. Broad principles from other conflicts are useful reminders of potential missteps, but they are not a blueprint for peaceful transition. Qaddafi looks as if he will go the way of Saddam Hussein; the important thing now is to ensure that Libya in 2012 does not go the way of Iraq in 2004.



Assad's Chemical Romance

As Syria descends into chaos, its stockpiles of chemical weaponry could turn into a proliferation nightmare.

The continued unrest in Syria, coupled with President Barack Obama's call for President Bashar al-Assad to leave power, has thrown the future of the country into flux. Among the most troubling uncertainties is the fate of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, which, if not protected properly, could fall into the wrong hands, with catastrophic results.

Syria is one of a handful of states that the U.S. government believes possess large stocks of chemical agents in militarized form -- that is, ready for use in artillery shells and bombs. The arsenal is thought to be massive, involving thousands of munitions and many tons of chemical agents, which range, according to CIA annual reports to Congress, from the blister gases of World War I -- such as mustard gas -- to advanced nerve agents such as sarin and possibly persistent nerve agents, such as VX gas.

In the hands of Assad -- and his father Hafez before him -- these weapons have been an ace-in-the-hole deterrent against Israel's nuclear capability. The Assad regime, however, has never openly brandished this capability: It did not employ chemical weapons in the 1982 Lebanon War against Israel, even after Israeli warplanes decimated the Syrian Air Force. Nor have they been deployed, or their use threatened, in attempting to bring Assad's current domestic antagonists to heel. And although Syria is accused of providing powerful missiles to Hezbollah, including some of a type that carried chemical warfare agents in the Soviet arsenal, Assad has not reportedly transferred lethal chemical capabilities to the Lebanon-based Shiite organization.

So despite their many faults and deplorable record on human rights, the Assads have treated their chemical arsenal with considerable care. But as the country potentially descends into chaos, will that hold true?

Let's start with the possibility of civil war. According to researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, open sources indicate that there are at least four, and potentially five, chemical weapons production facilities in Syria. One or two are located near Damascus, the other three situated in Hama, Latakia, and al-Safir village, near the city of Aleppo. Hama is one of the hotbeds of the Syrian revolt, which Assad's tanks attacked in early August and where, more recently, fighting has severely damaged the city's hospitals. Latakia is another center of unrest; it was shelled by the Syrian Navy in mid-August. Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, has also seen significant demonstrations.

If anti-Assad insurgents take up arms, the chemical sites, as symbols of the regime's authority, could become strategic targets. And, if mass defections occur from the Syrian army, there may be no one left to defend the sites against seizure. This could lead to disastrous outcomes, including confiscation of the chemical weapons by a radical new national government or sale of the weapons as war booty to organized nonstate actors or criminal groups.

In such chaos, no one can predict who might control the weapons or where they might be taken. With these chemical weapons in the hands of those engaged in a possible civil war, the risks that they would be used would increase substantially. The problem would be worsened further if some possessors were not fully aware of the extent of the weapons' deadly effects.

And let's imagine that Assad is eventually removed: What leaders would gain control of these weapons after he departed? Saudi-backed Sunni groups? Iranian-backed Shiite organizations? Whoever they might be, it is unclear that the newcomers would follow the Assads' cautious-use doctrine and refusal to share chemical weapons with nonstate groups, or that the new leaders would be able to maintain strict security measures at the chemical sites.

Meanwhile, it's possible that an existential threat will cause the Assad regime to abandon its previous policy of restraint regarding chemical weapons. It is not a huge leap from attacking civilians with tank fire, machine guns, and naval artillery to deploying poison gas, and the shock effect and sense of dread engendered by even limited use could quash a citywide uprising within an hour.

The options available to the United States to minimize these risks are limited at best. Washington has certainly warned Assad against using the weapons domestically. But with Assad already at risk of indictment for crimes against humanity, and given his likely belief that the United States will not intervene militarily due to its commitments elsewhere -- including its politically unpopular and still opaque involvement in Libya -- U.S. warnings may have little deterrent effect.

A pre-emptive Israeli military strike to destroy the weapons does not appear technically feasible: Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were ready to change the status quo, Assad is believed to have stored bulk chemical agents and filled (or quickly filled) shells and bombs in underground bunkers at multiple sites throughout the country. Moreover, even if Israel used incendiary bombs in an attempt to incinerate the chemical agents, the risk of dispersing large quantities of poisonous liquids would remain, with the potential to cause large-scale casualties.

The Obama administration needs to start planning now to manage Assad's chemical weapons legacy. If a new government replaces Assad -- or even if different groups compete for international recognition -- a U.S.-led coalition, including Turkey and the leading Arab states, should demand as a condition of support that the weapons immediately be placed under control of international monitors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and plans developed for their destruction. Hopefully, Syria's new leaders will have genuine legitimacy and will not need to prop up their credibility at home by clinging to these barbaric weapons.