Libya: Illusion of momentum as Nato campaign drags on

Libyan rebel fighter in ruined building, Misrata (12 June 2011) Rebels have broken out of their Misrata stronghold but western Libya remains mired in inconclusive fighting

Libya's civil war is about to enter its fourth month, and Nato's war - now longer than that over Kosovo - its third. 

The rebels, who call themselves the Free Libya Forces, though improving, are far from proficient. And no bombing campaign in history has succeeded in effecting regime change by airpower alone.

Though Nato may eventually rewrite the history books in Libya, it will take place on a timeline and in a manner that might bring into disrepute the very idea of humanitarian intervention.

After an initial blitz of Libya's air defences and military hardware, and waves of diplomatic successes for the Transitional National Council, the military balance has frozen.

Despite enjoying short supply lines to their stronghold in Benghazi and Nato's use of attack helicopters and drones, the rebels remain unable to break the eastern stalemate.

Misrata in the west, described as Libya's Stalingrad and a gateway to Tripoli, was supposedly "liberated" in early March. But by early June, loyalist forces defied Nato and launched three waves of infantry and artillery assaults that killed dozens.

Even farther west, the rebels have more skilled fighters, pockets of fiercely anti-Gaddafi sentiment, and a flow of arms from Tunisia. And yet, the area is mired in inconclusive fighting. 

Over-optimism

Chronic over-optimism blights Nato like a disease - in Afghanistan and, now, in Libya too. Every few weeks, spokesmen talk confidently of corners being turned. So it is no surprise to see limited gains being trumpeted as harbingers of a climactic victory.

Still of Libyan TV showing Col Gaddafi playing chess (12 June 2011) Air strikes and fuel shortages were not enough to put Col Gaddafi off a televised game of chess

Zawiya, 30km (18 miles) from Tripoli, became an icon of the revolution when its uprising was crushed in March. Now, it is being contested by rebels once more.

Deep in Libya's interior, Sebha, which contains large numbers of Col Gaddafi's Qaddhafa tribe, has seen protests for the first time. Zintan, a rebel-held city in the Berber mountains, has seen off government shelling in the past days.

But these modest successes come after Nato's heaviest daylight bombing raids on Tripoli, and Russia's endorsement of regime change.

Nato has moved, rung by rung, up the ladder of escalation. But this is because successive steps, from sending advisers to Benghazi to striking at the Gaddafi compound, have not had the expected military payoffs.

Is partition inevitable?

Does the resilience of the Gaddafi regime mean that a de facto partition of the country is inevitable?

Probably not. The renewed fighting around Tripoli will stretch government forces, eventually forcing Col Gaddafi to thin out his firepower and focus on pivotal cities, notably those that lie on supply lines.

It now appears that Misrata will survive the counter-offensive and evolve into a rebel bridgehead into Tripolitania [western Libya].

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It is harder to rebuild infrastructure than to destroy it, and nothing would be more self-defeating than crippling a post-Gaddafi government”

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Fuel shortages are now biting, the regime's single functioning refinery is barely operative, and the flow of oil from Tunisia is being gradually constricted. Armed groups will eventually probably form in Tripoli.

But Col Gaddafi's inability to mount a defensive campaign over a number of years is little comfort to Nato, whose restive parliaments and electorates were promised a campaign "of days or weeks, certainly not months", according to the French foreign minister in March. 

In a major report in mid-June, the International Crisis Group warned that a prolonged campaign risked "a large-scale refugee crisis" and the further "infiltration by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" into Libya.

Even if these are exaggerated fears (the latter might well have occurred with or without Nato's intervention), the cost of the war to the UK alone - likely several hundred million pounds by the end of the summer - compels a swift resolution. 

Warnings for Nato

In seeking that resolution, three concerns should be paramount.

The first is that even if Libya can simply be bombed into submission, this may come at an unacceptable cost. Nato, frustrated at the limited effect of its pressure, might aggressively target dual-use facilities like power stations and oil hubs.

It is harder to rebuild infrastructure than to destroy it, and nothing would be more self-defeating than crippling a post-Gaddafi government. 

The second concern is that Col Gaddafi stages tactical withdrawals into Sirte and, eventually, his capital city. There is already evidence that the strongest military units have been relocated to Tripoli. Urban centres offer numerous points of defence and would enable regime forces to exploit human shields.

Perhaps the only way to avert this would be a mutually acceptable settlement. Such a settlement requires that the rebels talk to the regime, and work out a process culminating in, though not necessarily beginning with, the departure of the Gaddafi family. 

Third, and most important, Nato must prioritise what, in military parlance, is called "phase 4 planning" - postwar stabilisation and reconstruction. This should not involve Western boots on Libyan soil, an idea which is politically unacceptable and reckless.

Nato states should instead extend front-loaded financial and practical assistance to a provisional government as it begins to rule over a land in which many will remain mistrustful of a new and alien authority.

More on This Story

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