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Meanwhile, in Libya…

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The rebel situation continues to deteriorate:

On Saturday morning, pro-Qaddafi troops launched an assault on Misrata (Misurata), the city of some 600,000 due east of the capital of Tripoli, which has been in rebel hands for weeks. In the wake of government victories at Zawiya and Ra’s Lanuf, it is clear that the pro-Qaddafi military is hoping to parlay its momentum into complete control of the coast from the Tunisian border all the way to the eastern front, now at Uqail.

Qaddafi loyalists finally took the downtown square of Zawiya on Friday. The city is half an hour to the west of the capital, Tripoli, and was the last major stronghold of the rebels on the Mediterranean coast to the west. Reports indicate a massacre of the rebels, with the large mosque having been destroyed (it is customary for dissidents to take refuge in mosques, which traditionally were considered off-limits to violence), and rumors of bodies bull-dozed away.

Government forces also pushed rebels out of the eastern refinery town of Ra’s Lanuf to its east at Uqail.

The Arab League is calling for UN intervention in the form of a no fly zone:

Despite losses on the ground, the rebels won a key battle at the Arab League during crisis talks in Cairo on Saturday. It came out in support of plans to impose a no-fly zone over Libya…

The 22-member league also agreed to contact the rebels’ provisional national council, a move welcomed by the US and Britain.  Arab foreign ministers urged the United Nations Security Council ”to assume its responsibilities in the face of the deteriorating situation in Libya and take the necessary measures to impose an air exclusion zone for Libyan warplanes”.

The decision was adopted by nine of the 11 foreign ministers attending the meeting at the league’s Cairo headquarters, from which Libya was excluded. Algeria and Syria voted against the move.  The pan-Arab organisation also announced its recognition of the transitional national council set up by the rebels in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

US forces continue to accumulate in the Mediterranean.  I remain unconvinced by the case for intervention, although obviously if it happens the more multilateral the better. I suspect at this point that the rebels will require more than simply a no fly zone in order to prevail; even shipments of food and military equipment may not cut it.  At the same time, prospects for Libya following a notional Gaddafi victory are really quite grim, especially given the large number of defections from the state that accompanied the first demonstrations.

…I suppose I should expand a bit, based on some of the comments below. As Mojo suggests, there’s not a lot of evidence right now that Gaddafi’s ability to use airpower is decisive, as his loyalists seem to have material and organizational advantages beyond airpower, although preventing the use of helicopters would probably help more than stopping the fixed wing bombing. If the US really wanted to overturn Gaddafi, something along the lines of the Afghan Model would probably work. This would involve using Libyan rebel forces to support and screen US SOF while applying air and sea precision strike. I suspect that the military and political effect of such operations would be dramatic and decisive. However, that would still leave a large number of strategic and grand strategic questions unanswered. On the former, these include but are not limited to:

  • Who shall we install in Tripoli?
  • How much should we support the new government against pro-Gaddafi insurgents?
  • What shall we do if the new government decides to settle scores in a brutal fashion?

On the grand strategic level, the questions include:

  • Does the US need to intervene in every civil war everywhere, even if neighbors are very supportive of a particularly faction?
  • How will another US military intervention in an Islamic country play?

I suspect that an inability to answer these questions satisfactorily is driving the policy ambiguity in Washington and in Europe.

… A couple people in comments wonder why the United States would have to decide “Who shall we install in Tripoli?”  The answer doesn’t depend on the point “Well, because we’re imperalists,” although of course that can be part of the answer. As there is no unified opposition, in any military cooperation with the rebels, the United States would have to find particular rebel leaders and factions to work with.  Working with them (even to the extent that we hand over the keys of Tripoli) is tantamount to deciding who gets Tripoli in the end; by necessity the people we decide to engage with will have a tremendous advantage in any post-Gaddafi struggle for power.  We can’t throw open the gates of Libya, then “let the Libyans decide for themselves;” the very act of throwing open the gates requires intervention that will work to the benefit of certain actors, thus necessitating the question “Who shall we install in Tripoli?”

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