MIDDLE EAST: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Libyan impasse the result of multiple policy failures
, April 16, 2011
Two months ago, it seemed certain that a popular uprising, which had forced the resignation of the autocratic presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, would engulf Libya, the oil-rich north African state led by the tyrannical President Muammar Gaddafi, who has ruled his country with a rod of iron since 1969.
Instead, the popular uprising in Libya has descended into stalemate, with Gaddafi still entrenched in his capital, Tripoli, and apparently unmoved by the rebellion in eastern Libya.
Despite the defection of not only some of his senior military commanders, but also the justice minister and the foreign minister, there seems little prospect that the inadequately armed, equipped and trained resistance fighters will be able to overwhelm the military forces which remain loyal to the dictator.
The overwhelming majority of Libya’s six million people remain under Gaddafi’s control, despite the defection of the eastern city of Benghazi to the opposition.
The military forces at Gaddafi’s disposal include an army numbered at about 100,000, including three units controlled by his family members or members of his tribal group which are personally loyal to him, together with an air force which numbered nearly 400 combat aircraft before the war, and a small navy.
The massive air strikes organised by the US and NATO seem to have neutralised Gaddafi’s air force, which had launched savage air attacks on rebel-held positions in eastern Libya.
However, in the absence of effective forces on the ground, there seems no way in which the opposition to Gaddafi can win the war. Victory will ultimately be determined by who controls the Libyan land mass, particularly the more populous west of the country, including Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s control of Libya rests less on his military forces — which are more than a match for the opposition — than on his internal security force which, for the past 40 years, has ruthlessly suppressed any internal opposition.
This force remains intact. Already, hundreds of people have died at the hands of Gaddafi’s security force this year, quite apart from those who have died in the military conflict.
The glaring weakness of the opposition to Gaddafi is its lack of a coherent strategy to defeat the dictator. The domestic opposition naively believed that Gaddafi’s support base would simply collapse. It has not happened.
The Arab League resolution which endorsed military action against Gaddafi specifically referred to action to protect the civilian population, as did the UN Security Council resolution on Libya.
By a vote of 10 in favour to none against, with five abstentions (Brazil, China, Germany, India and the Russian Federation), the UN Security Council authorised member-states to take “all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.
President Obama has repeatedly confirmed that the military objective in Libya is the protection of civilians, and that US forces would not become involved on the ground in the country.
He has contrasted his position with that of former President George W. Bush, who committed US ground forces to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama has, however, made it clear that the US was considering arming the rebels, who are believed to be getting military support from US allies, including Saudi Arabia.
The problem with this approach is that it ensures that the rebels will be able to continue holding their territory against Gaddafi, while being too weak to defeat him, thus resulting in a continuation of the war in Libya virtually indefinitely.
The Libya conflict could end up defining Obama’s foreign policy, just as Iraq and Afghanistan defined that of his predecessor. But Obama’s legacy might well be seen as a failure of will, which perpetuated a military conflict and left one of Africa’s worst despots in power.
Despite the UN resolution, and the intention of the US and NATO to protect civilians, the war on the ground will involve massive civilian deaths, as is happening currently at Misrata, the single city in the west of the country which defected to the rebels, and is now under continued attack from Gaddafi’s forces.
The policy adopted by the Arab League, the UN Security Council, the US and NATO is certain to lead to the continuation of civilian deaths in Libya, and more bitter fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces as time goes on.
The fact that US and NATO military aircraft have been incapable of preventing the bloodshed in Misrata, the scene of intense fighting, is a portent of the future, as Gaddafi’s forces and rebels fight for control of the major population centres of the country, spread out over many hundreds of kilometres of the Mediterranean coast line.
If the objective of the military intervention in Libya was to save the lives of civilians, the question must be asked whether the US and NATO should have intervened at all.