Q&A: The On-Going Libya Crisis

Libya Protests

The invasion of Libya has now passed its first month and is fast moving towards a stalemate. Why has the Western coalition been unable to remove Gaddafi?

There are three reasons as to why the invasion of Libya has for the moment failed in ousting Gaddafi.

1. The US, France and Britain have differences over the operational aspects of the invasion in achieving their goal of regime change. Prior to intervention the French and the British wanted the US to carry the main burden of the intervention as Europe is going through a period of austerity and is making large cuts in defence budgets. Whilst the US led the initial air sorties, this was transferred over to NATO, which required both France and Britain to contribute more towards the intervention. France, Britain and the US, who are all leading the military intervention, are now confronted with the reality that the forces they have deployed to Libya are incompatible with the political goals they want to achieve.

2. The Western coalition remains vague on the post-Gaddafi scenario. The Western coalition has gone far beyond maintaining no fly zones and is actively attempting to create the conditions needed to oust Gaddafi and create regime change. Gaddafi has dominated Libya for so long, there is no other organised polity that can take over after him. The Benghazi rebels, whilst brave, have been unable to form into a cohesive group that can impose its writ on the country.

3. The Europeans and the US are not reading from the same sheet with regards who will be in charge once Gaddafi is ousted. As a result both Europe and the US have been competing to make contact with the rebels from Benghazi in order to shape the post-Gaddafi regime. Europe’s need for the US to carry most of the burden of the invasion led the US to delay the initial intervention as its CIA operatives worked to contact the revolutionaries.

The Western coalition, which is fundamentally France, Britain and the US individually possess the capability to bring this conflict to an end, why have they failed in achieving this?

Under a UN resolution the US, France and UK were able to impose a no-fly zone on Libya that covered most of the country, this allowed them to shoot down any Libyan aircraft that attempted to take off. They also imposed a naval blockade that cut Gaddafi forces off from the world and simultaneously they conducted attacks against Gaddafi’s grounded aircrafts as well as airfields, air defences and command, control and communication systems. The French and US also struck against Libyan armor and ground forces. The western intervention has been fundamentally fought from the air with little commitment, for the moment, for a ground invasion – this has been left to the Benghazi rebels. The plan was to use American firepower to ground Gaddafi’s air force, and get the armed rebel forces to depose Gaddafi. An air attack is limited and this is why the intervention has dragged on for over a month.
The coalition wants to achieve its goals with the smallest possible military commitment. The European powers with the US want the Benghazi rebels to carry out most of the ground operations.

Whilst the European powers France and the UK have historically had the most influence in Libya, they could remove Gaddafi as they posses the military capability to do so, but this would require a large military commitment which they are not willing to commit to. This is because this would require a large number of ground troops to swiftly move across Libyan territory and launch a huge counter attack on Tripoli. Such a move is fraught with complications as an insurgency by forces loyal to Gaddafi would ensue. Whilst the supply lines of the ground invasion would be short compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem would be fighting in urban areas against Libyan forces and differentiating them with civilians. The Western coalition would very likely have major differences on the composition of the ground forces. More importantly such a strategy is deeply unpopular in the West as the memories of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts remain fresh in the minds of many.

Who are the rebels in Benghazi? Why have they failed to remove Gaddafi and what is their military capability?

The Libyan uprising consists of a number of tribes and individuals, some from within the Libyan government who defected, some from the army and many other elements who are long term opponents of the regime. Whilst the revolutions took place in Tunisia and Egypt, eastern Libya known in the pre-independence era as Cyrenaica, and traditionally the heartland of the anti-Gaddafi movement united with other tribes in their opposition to Gaddafi.

By mid February the popular uprising had spread to Tripoli and by the end of February 2011, much of Libya had slipped out of Gaddafi’s control. Eastern Libya, centered around the vital port of Benghazi, firmly under the control of the opposition has become the headquarters of the opposition forces. The Muslims of Libya bravely fought forces loyal to Gaddafi in Benghazi and were able to expel those who did not defect. This rallied other Muslims in cities across Northern Libya culminating in a day of rage on the 17 February 2011.

It is from this the National Transitional Council (NTC) was established on 27 February 2011 in an effort to consolidate efforts for change in Libya. The NTC coordinated resistance efforts between the different towns held in rebel control, and to give a political face to the opposition to present to the world. Mustafah Abdul Hafiz the former justice minister in the Gaddafi regime and Abdul Hafiz Gogha a Benghazi lawyer are considered the original architects of the transitional council, it is now composed by many of those who defected from the Gaddafi regime. Ever since, the Libyan National Transitional Council began to be seen as the sole representative of the rebellion, and as the sole representative of the Libyan people by France and Qatar, it started to issue poignant statements about the future foreign relations of a post-Gaddafi Libya. The council has said that those nations that help the uprising – which is France and Britain – would enjoy a privileged relationship with Libya.

The Benghazi rebels have been unable to remove Gaddafi as they lack the military capability to do so. In the early days of unrest, rebel forces broke into military arsenals and gained a large quantity of small arms, ammunition and heavy weapons, including armored vehicles and rocket artillery. For the West the rebel forces were to be the ground forces who they would provide air support to but the opposition forces have lacked the ability to be a competent military force in the face of the onslaught by Gaddafi’s forces.

The Muslims of Benghazi are united in their opposition to Gaddafi but are not a hardened experienced military force. The initial quick gains were largely due to defections and as a result the rebel forces have been unable to keep hold of their early gains. The Benghazi rebels are not composed of enough trained and capable soldiers. The rebels have for the moment proven to be unable to hold out against Gaddafi’s forces. Their problem is not one that close air support can solve. Stratfor outlined “It is a problem of basic cohesion, organization, military proficiency, battlefield communications and leadership. So far, it appears that the extent of this problem is beyond anything even Western special operations forces teams trained to provide those things might possibly achieve anytime soon.” This is why the rebels issued a call for drivers capable of operating a T-55 tank, an archaic Soviet tank and one of the oldest in even the Libyan arsenal.

Does Libya form part of the global struggle between the world’s powers?

Libya has become the latest battleground for the international powers and this is why Libya has not turned into Tunisia or Egypt, where the rulers were quickly overthrown.

Only a few weeks ago Gaddafi and his family were portrayed by the West as reformed modernizers with a gleam of democratic credentials. Indeed, in Britain Gaddafi and his family mixed with the aristocracy. It was former Prime Minister Tony Blair who helped engineer Libya’s rehabilitation in the so-called community of nations. As part of this clandestine assistance, Blair also exercised great freedom over the Libyan Investment Authority, which at the last count had $70 billion of plundered money belonging to the Libyan people. Yet none of these intertwined commercial interests between Britain and their protégé Gaddafi prevented the former from turning against their surrogate for the last forty-one years.

Sensing the cataclysmic nature of the protests across Libya, the UK was quick to abandon Gaddafi and expunge any vestiges of cooperation between the two countries. William Hague UK foreign secretary scurried to announce Gaddafi‘s exit to Venezuela and that the UK was looking to a post-Gaddafi era. Nonetheless, the enigmatic Gaddafi whom the British nurtured and protected dug in his heels and decided to fight. Outraged by Gaddafi’s defiance the British mobilized Western countries and the UN to use force to remove him from power – the unofficial goal of military intervention.

Libya, like North Africa and the Middle East forms part of Europe’s attempts to reduce energy dependency from Russia energy. In a European Union report: ‘The European Union’s

Energy Security Challenges,’ it highlighted: “EU efforts to diversify European energy supplies and decrease dependence on Russia have heightened calls within Europe for stronger political and economic engagement in the Middle East and North Africa…. The potential for growth in Europe’s energy diversification strategy with respect to the Middle East and North Africa is significant. Nevertheless, as with the Caspian region, if the EU is serious about lowering its dependency on any one source, it must turn more and more to the Middle East and North Africa.”

The US has viewed the instability in Libya as an opportunity to gain influence in the country. It has made use of Europe’s inability to go it alone in removing Gaddafi to steal Libya from Europe and Britain. However the US has played a weak hand in Libya due to having little influence in Libya as it has traditionally been European territory. The US strategy appears to be to delay matters which make Europe ever more reliant on US fire power, this stalling then allows the US to cultivate contact with the rebels. America has worked to contact the protestors and rebels as announced by Clinton just as she announced in her other communications before her visit to Cairo. The US delayed the launch of the initial invasion and by passing over the operation to NATO it has further delayed matters. A senior European official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Washington Post and to avoid antagonizing the Americans, said that Obama’s eagerness to turn over command of the Libyan air operation to NATO in late February and the withdrawal of US fighter planes from ground-strike missions, had undermined the strength of their united front against Gaddafi. The longer the war continues the more likely the Benghazi rebels will turn to the US to topple Gaddafi rather than the European powers.

What direction are events most likely to take?

The ideal situation for the West would be for Gaddafi to step down, they could then work to construct a post-Gaddafi regime. However Gaddafi has dug in his heels and decided to fight to keep his position. It would take a major military escalation for Gaddafi to believe stepping down is the best course of action. The differences between the Western coalition has been used by Gaddafi to strengthen himself and until a major assault takes place on Tripoli its highly unlikely Gaddafi will step down.

The Western powers could cut a deal with Gaddafi and offer him incentives to leave. This would not expand the military footprint of the West and bring a swift end to hostilities. Any deals that could have been made would have been in place prior to the invasion. Now that this has passed and military action is taking place even if Gaddafi was to offer terms it is unlikely the West would accept, as now the conflict has turned towards cultivating agents to take over after Gaddafi. All the powers in Libya will use their deployed military capability to shape the facts on the ground.

The Western coalition could split Libya into two, which was the case up to 1951 when Libya was two countries – Cyrenaica in the East and Tripolitania in the West. Such a solution would only be acceptable if a prolonged stalemate developed otherwise it will be viewed as a defeat by most in the West. Such a solution would also require the cooperation of the opposition movement and Gaddafi. This would require Gaddafi to give up most of Libya’s oil resources and infrastructure which is mostly located in Eastern territories – its unlikely he would accept this.

The Western coalition could aim to directly kill Gaddafi. This would require a huge increase in hostilities in targeting Gaddafi, or a ballistic missile to target a wide area where Gaddafi would most likely be hiding. Gaddafi has defiantly paraded through the streets of Tripoli, giving the Western coalition more than enough opportunities to take him out, but the West has not taken such opportunities. This option has not been taken as of yet as the post – Gaddafi regime has not been constructed. It will also include large civilian casualties which would be used by the Western powers to undermine one other.

The final option, which is becoming more and more likely, is placing combat troops in Libya. As the rebels have failed to hold onto the gains they made, the Western coalition could put their own troops on the ground along with the rebels and work to remove Gaddafi. This is very unpopular in most Western countries as it has the possibility of making Libya Europe’s Afghanistan. This option looks more and more likely by the facts on the ground irrespective of the rhetoric coming form London, Washington and Paris. The announcement that France, Italy and Britain will send small teams of military officers to help train Libya’s opposition forces could potentially be the beginning of foreign ground forces. On the 22 April 2011Britain confirmed that three ships carrying 600 marines are on route to Cyprus. Their mission is supposedly nothing to do with Libya, and is a previously planned training exercise. But the location and timing cannot be discounted and their position and capabilities as a naval infantry mean that they can be called upon in a contingency.

Leave a Comment