Who are the Libyan rebels? U.S. tries to figure out

Laura Rozen
The Envoy

When a U.S. Air Force pilot ejected from his crashing F-15 Eagle fighter jet and landed in rebel-held eastern Libya overnight Tuesday, he soon found that he was in friendly hands.

"He was a very nice guy," Libyan businessman Ibrahim Ismail told Newsweek of the initially quite anxious American pilot. "He came to free the Libyan people." Rebel officials dispatched a doctor to attend to the pilot and presented him with a bouquet of flowers, according to Newsweek.

But the U.S. government, now engaged in a fourth day of air strikes against Libyan regime military targets, does not know very much about the rebels who now see it as a friendly ally in their fight to overthrow Muammar Gadhafi.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a 45-minute, closed-door meeting with Mahmoud Jibril, a leader of the newly formed Libyan opposition Interim National Council in a luxury Paris hotel earlier this month. But in a clear signal of America's wariness about all the unknowns, Clinton gave no public statement after their meeting and did not appear in photographs with the rebel leader. (By contrast, a week earlier French President Nicholas Sarkozy bestowed formal diplomatic recognition on the Council and was photographed shaking hands with its emissaries Jibril and Ali Essawi on the steps of the Elysee Palace.)

Middle East policy watchers note a glaring disconnect between the buoyant expectations of some rebel supporters that the international military coalition will provide direct air support for their armed struggle, and the insistence of U.S. military commanders that their mandate allows for no such thing.

The coalition mission doesn't include protecting forces engaged in combat against Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi's forces, Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters Monday. His mission, Ham said, is narrowly confined to preventing Gadhafi forces from attacking civilians, getting Gadhafi's forces to pull back from rebel-held towns, and allowing civilians humanitarian access to food, water, and electricity/gas supplies, Ham said.

So who are the Libyan rebels with whom we now seem (for better or for worse) to be joined with in a shared fight against Gadhafi?

One view has it that the Libyan rebels are basically peaceful protesters who found their demonstrations against Gadhafi met with bullets and had no choice but to resort to violence.

"The protesters are nice, sincere people who want a better future for Libya," Human Rights Watch Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert told South Africa's Business Day. "But their strength is also their weakness: they aren't hardened fighters, so no one knows what the end game will be."

"This is not really a civil war between two equal powers--it started as a peaceful protest movement and was met with bullets," Bouckaert continued. "Now you have a situation where you have a professional and heavily equipped army fighting a disorganized and inexperienced bunch of rebels who stand little chance against them."

Still, the rebels are largely unknown to the American government, despite initial tentative meetings such as Clinton's and some meetings held by U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz with opposition representatives. (Cretz is now working out of the State Department, as the United States has withdrawn its diplomatic presence.) Last week, President Barack Obama appointed an American diplomat, Chris Stevens, to be the U.S. liaison to the Libyan opposition.

"We don't have the comfort level with the rebels," said the National Security Network's Joel Rubin, a former State Department official. "We certainly know some things about them, had meetings. It's not as if there's complete blindness. But I don't think at this stage the comfort level is there for that kind of close coordination."

But the Libyan rebels seem to have found western consultants who have offered advice on reassuring buzzwords the West would like to hear. On Tuesday, the Interim National Council issued just such a soothing statement from their rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"The Interim National Council is committed to the ultimate goal of the revolution which is to build a democratic civil state, based on the rule of law, respect for human rights including ... equal rights and duties for all citizens, ... equality between men and women, " the Council said in their statement.

The Council also "reaffirms that Libya's foreign policy will be based on mutual respect and ... respect [for] international law and international humanitarian law," the group said.

"These are objectives they have stated on their own," a former U.S. official familiar with representatives of the council told the Envoy. "These guys are western-educated, sophisticated and well-traveled. They abhor the oppressive political system in Libya which Americans have absolutely no clue about .... We who have never been denied our freedoms for hundreds of years just cannot relate or understand."

(Photo, top: Libyan rebels on the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah: Suhaib Salem/Reuters. Photo, middle: France's President Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Libyan Interim National Council emissaries Mahmoud Jibril (R) and Ali Essawi after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris March 10, 2011: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)