In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

NATO at a crossroads in Libya

Posted by seumasach on June 21, 2011

Victor Kotsev

Asia Times


22nd June, 2011

TEL AVIV – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is running low on time to make some critical decisions in Libya, if it has not already done so secretly. The current campaign is growing increasingly desperate, and is beginning to attract intolerable levels of international condemnation; it is hardly sustainable for a very long time, and if it continues at the same pace, it could take many months before Muammar Gaddafi is brought to his knees.

This is assuming that the latter were to happen at all. For, while Gaddafi has reverted mostly to defensive actions in response to the ever-more fierce bombing raids, he has also kept his most important military cards close to his chest, and can still put up a significant fight.

The alliance is facing fairly straight-forward binary choices, attesting to the fact that the war is not going well for it. It can either escalate further its military involvement, up to and including a ground invasion, or it can force a partition of the country between Gaddafi and the rebels. Ironically, the spate of reports that has come out of Libya in the past week or so, underscoring the severity of the rifts between all the main participants in the fighting, can point to either scenario.

Gaddafi seems to believe that a ground operation is in the works; Russian officials have been talking about it for a while, and more recently additional countries have dropped hints.

Gaddafi’s offer, voiced last week by his most prominent son Saif al-Islam, to hold elections within three months, and to step down if he loses, [1] attests to his efforts to avert such a scenario.

So does his defensive posture in the past weeks – while his army has inflicted severe casualties on the rebels, it has done so mostly by ambushes and by using heavy artillery against advancing enemy units. A few counter-attacks have taken place, but these apparently lacked much energy and were followed by swift withdrawals.

The rebels’ blunt rejection of the colonel’s offer, on the other hand, reveals surprising confidence. “We tell him [Saif al-Islam] that the time has passed because our rebels are at the outskirts of Tripoli, and they will join our people and rebels there to uproot the symbol of corruption and tyranny in Libya,” a high-ranking rebel spokesman told al-Jazeera.

By all accounts, this statement does not nearly match the situation on the ground. There are currently three main fronts in Libya: in the east near the town of Brega, in the west between the rebel stronghold Misrata and several towns near the coast on the way to the capital Tripoli, and further west in the mountains.

The last front has witnessed the most significant rebel gains recently, but this is largely due to the withdrawal of Gaddafi forces from the area. In any case, the mountain rebels are very different from the rest of the anti-Gaddafi bloc: they are Berbers, arguably fighting for greater autonomy. Most analysts believe that they are unlikely to attack Tripoli, and Gaddafi has chosen to leave them alone for now, concentrating instead on more urgent threats.

The other two fronts have been moving slowly at best for the rebels. They frequently claim successes, but their advances are just as frequently reversed despite NATO cover, and their casualties are mounting. Dozens have recently been killed and hundreds wounded near Misrata alone; several attacks on Brega were repulsed with heavy losses as well.

My earlier assessment that the rebels would not be able to advance far due to their lack of military experience in non-urban conditions [2] is being confirmed by the reports. “We had a strategy to finish everything today, but some of the fighters think it’s a game,” a rebel commander told Reuters on Friday. His words two days later suggested that lessons were not being implemented quickly enough: “We made a mistake today … We sent the boys out on foot before the vehicles.”

“The Misrata rebels honed their fighting skills in close-quarter street battles,” writes Reuters, “wresting the city center from pro-Gaddafi forces and then pushing them back on three fronts to break an artillery siege … They are proving less successful in open ground.” [3]

The frustration of the rebels is evident in their frequent outbursts against NATO, accusing the West of not providing enough of either military or financial assistance. As concerns the latter, their oil minister Ali Tarhouni issued a particularly grim warning a few days ago. “We are running out of everything,” he told Reuters. “It’s a complete failure. Either they [Western nations] don’t understand or they don’t care. Nothing has materialized yet. And I really mean nothing.”

“The economy in eastern Libya, where much of the oil that once made Libya a major OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] exporter came from, is in a shambles,” Reuters warns. [4]

Despite the rants and the setbacks, the rebels’ bravado does match the ever-increasing NATO involvement in the operations. Attack helicopters are flying combat missions; the rebels are almost openly receiving heavy artillery and training in how to use it, even though reports neglect to mention by whom (NATO insists it is supplying only non-lethal equipment such as body armor and communications gear).

The air campaign, in general, has become bolder and deadlier. More and more strikes are carried out during the day time, and civilian casualties are mounting. In the past two days, international media broadcast gruesome pictures of the aftermath of NATO attacks on housing complexes.

According to the Gaddafi regime, seven civilians were killed by NATO on Sunday and 19 on Monday (and over 700 since the start of the operation); NATO acknowledged an “error” on Sunday while claiming that Monday’s raid hit a military facility. The house in question belonged to a man from Gaddafi’s inner circle, and the dead were his relatives.

The civilian casualties threaten to undermine what is left of the international legitimacy of the operation, and to force an abrupt end to it down the road. “NATO is endangering its credibility; we cannot risk killing civilians,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned on Monday.

International pressure is piling up. Last week, South African President Jacob Zuma joined a chorus of voices accusing NATO of overstepping its mandate. [5]

The alliance also faces considerable political and financial pressures at home. The operation’s costs are mounting, and they are proving to be a considerable burden to individual members. In the United States, which has played a crucial role in the war, the administration of President Barack Obama faces threats from congress to have its war funding cut.

Obama has come under heavy criticism for ignoring the War Powers Act, which stipulates that a president who has not received authorization from congress for a military operation must conclude it after 60 days, and has an additional 30 days to do so. He did not apply or receive authorization, and the 90-day deadline expired last week.

All this does not exhaust NATO’s troubles. Nobody will admit it, but it is likely that the alliance is running low on significant strategic targets that are legitimate to bomb. The escalating civilian casualties and the repeated targeting of empty buildings, including Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia complex in Tripoli, support this hypothesis.

Moreover, this is what usually happens during prolonged air campaigns, and there is no reason to believe that the Libya war is any different. It takes significant effort, time and intelligence-gathering to identify such high-value targets, and it takes just a few hours to bomb them.

NATO has been increasingly desperate, trying to shock and awe Gaddafi with strong “messages” for quite some time, and simple math indicates that the pool of targets is probably getting depleted much faster than it is being replenished.

Tactical targets such as tanks and artillery installations have also become more and more difficult to hit due to Gaddafi’s improved tactics of hiding them in populated and difficult-to-bomb areas.

In other words, NATO is facing prohibitive costs and dubious gains if it continues with its current strategy. Gaddafi has been weakened appreciably as well, but he seems to be nowhere near breaking point. The question of what comes next looms; the Western alliance does not have many options.

A campaign to kill the colonel from the air has arguably been underway for some months, but it has not accomplished the objective. Failing that, and since the alliance has made the goal of its campaign to remove Gaddafi, the colonel only has to survive in power in order to create the perception that he has won (wars are fought largely over perception, as military scientists openly admit).
The main question is, will NATO be willing to concede such a defeat – for example, by forcing the division of Libya into two and allowing Gaddafi to rule the western part – or will it go all the way to send ground forces to remove him.

Speculation is running wild – from an imminent ground invasion in the next few days to complicated diplomatic initiatives involving members of the royal household, exiled by Gaddafi in 1969. Reliable information is scarce, but the rapid proliferation of reports and speculation is revealing by itself.

When tensions are rising so rapidly and new information is coming out at such a pace, it is safe to assume that the ground is being set for something new; however, it is hard to say, sometimes even for the participants themselves, whether more or less violence will ensue.

Both concessions and threats can be bluffs – aiming either to bolster the international support and legitimacy of the respective sides, to shore up a more advantageous negotiating position, or to prepare the public for whatever comes next.

Right before dramatic diplomatic announcements, negotiators with many years of experience often say, there is usually a palpable hardening of rhetoric on both sides; it serves both to pay lip-service to the demands of hardliners on each side and to warn the other side of what would happen if it did not keep its commitments. This is also true of the time immediately preceding large-scale military operations, unless the attack is meant to be a surprise.

Very often, the real threat of massive bloodshed is what finally persuades both sides to negotiate a ceasefire; sometimes, however, the threat materializes. What will happen in Libya is hard to predict, perhaps even for those who call the shots.

1. Gaddafi son offers Libya elections, al-Jazeera, 16 June 2011.
2. Libya: The land of make believe, , Asia Times Online, 13 June 2011.
3. Inexperience costing rebels in advance on Tripoli, Reuters, 19 June 2011.
4. Libyan rebels blame West for lack of cash, , Reuters, 18 June 2011.
5. Libya: Jacob Zuma accuses Nato of not sticking to UN resolution, The Telegraph, 14 June 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.

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