Middle East

Libya: what next?

A Libyan woman reacts with her hands written on them in Arabic " I love Libya" Image copyright AP
Image caption The phrase written in Arabic on this Libyan woman's hands reads: " I love Libya"

One week after the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of military force in Libya, a solution to the country's crisis appears nowhere in sight.

The Gaddafi regime remains entrenched in the west and the "rebels" continue to control the east, from Libya's second city of Benghazi to the Egyptian border, raising the spectre of stalemate and the de facto division of the country.

The UN resolution

Security Council Resolution 1973, passed on 17 March, called for a ceasefire and the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, and it imposed a freeze on "all funds, other financial assets and economic resources" owned or controlled by the Libyan authorities.

Although the resolution authorized member states to "take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack", it explicitly excluded "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory".

Since the resolution was passed Western countries, led by the United States, France and Britain, have carried out a series of air strikes which appear to have succeeded in degrading or neutralizing Libyan air defences, thus minimising the risk to the warplanes patrolling the no-fly zone.

Most importantly, air strikes on the outskirts of Benghazi on 19 March removed the immediate threat facing the city where the regime's forces had been poised to advance after Gaddafi promised to search it "alley by alley, house by house, room by room" and to show "no mercy".

Military failures

However, initial speculation that the removal of Gaddafi's air power from the military equation would clear the way for the rebels to advance to the areas still under his control has so far not been borne out.

To begin with, the rebels, who are using Benghazi as their headquarters, have failed to take advantage of the cover provided by the no-fly zone to move westwards.

Poorly trained or untrained, disorganised, without a command structure or, apparently, a plan, and lacking the wherewithal to counter Gaddafi's armour and heavy artillery, they have failed to retake even towns that they had originally captured, such as Ajdabiya, a gateway town to eastern Libya located 100 miles (160 kilometres) to the west of Benghazi, and the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf further to the west.

Moreover, Libyan army units that had turned their back on the Gaddafi regime in the early days of the rebellion, notably the Sa'iqa special forces brigade based in Benghazi, appear to have shed their uniforms and vanished instead of joining the rebel armed forces.

The special forces' long-serving erstwhile commander, General Abd-al-Fattah Yunis, who in February defected from the regime where he was interior minister and is now "chief of the General Staff of the Army of Free Libya", appears not to have used his influence or contacts in the force to mobilise it to the rebel cause.

Consequently, in the areas previously under full rebel control, such as the central city of Misrata, about 130 miles (210 km) from the capital Tripoli, and the western city of Zintan, about 55 miles (90 km) southwest of Tripoli, Gaddafi's forces have continued to tighten their grip through what eyewitnesses describe as the indiscriminate use of tanks, heavy armour, multiple rocket launchers and snipers, as well as by cutting water and power supplies to the population.

Political and communications failure

The rebels' failure on the military front has been matched by an equally significant absence of a communications strategy towards Libyans and, crucially, Western publics whose support is essential if their governments are to continue to participate in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973.

Furthermore, although soon after taking over Benghazi and eastern Libya in February the rebels announced an interim leadership the Transitional National Council - which consists mainly of people who either had served in or had been connected to the Gaddafi regime - they have not so far explained their vision for the country or how they intend to achieve that vision, beyond toppling Gaddafi.

This has generated anxiety among some Libyans, and especially in the Western states implementing the UN Security Council resolution where questions are being asked regarding the wisdom of supporting a side in the Libyan conflict about which little is known.

Stalemate and division?

On the face of it, these tactical and strategic failures do not bode well either for the future of Libya or for the rebels' cause.

The inability of the Gaddafi regime to overwhelm the rebels in the absence of air cover, and the failure of the rebel forces to plan and organise a push westwards, could in time result in a freezing of the status quo and the de facto division of the country, with a rump state controlled by Gaddafi in the west and the eastern half of the country under rebel rule.

Both sides have vowed not to let this happen but they may have no choice but to accept it.

From the Western allies' point of view, this would also be a most undesirable outcome because as long as Gaddafi remains in power in one half of they country - and therefore a threat to civilians in the other half - it would mean that they would have to maintain the no-fly zone indefinitely.

The Iraq scenario, then, where the no-fly zone was in position for 10 years, would begin to haunt decision makers, not only because it would create a haemorrhaging of public support for the intervention in Libya, but also because of the big economic costs involved.

As far as the rebels are concerned, a long-drawn-out stalemate would also give the Gaddafi regime time to mobilise international opinion against the no-fly zone and for the lifting of UN sanctions.

Endgame

However, a stalemate and the facto division of Libya are by no means inevitable.

In the first place, the rebels still have time to formulate a strategy, organize a coherent military force and capture the areas still under Gaddafi's control.

Secondly, now that Gaddafi's air defences have been neutralised and a no-fly zone is fully operational, his forces are no longer capable of retaking any of the major towns and cities under rebel control.

Furthermore, with the no-fly zone in place, the air forces of the countries implementing the UN Security Council resolution can now focus their attention on the regime's supply lines and troop movements where these are judged to be a potential threat to civilians, as has happened in Misrata.

This would not only ensure that the Libyan ruler does not expand the areas under his grip, but might also lead army commanders still loyal to him to question the long-term value of their loyalty.

Another factor that would work against the possibility of a long-term stalemate and the de facto division of Libya is the possibility of intervention by Western ground troops in areas where Gaddafi's forces might infiltrate into towns and cities and present a grave threat to the civilian population.

Although Security Council resolution explicitly excludes "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory", it does not rule out targeted intervention by ground forces, for example, special forces sent in to take out snipers from residential centres.

Finally, there is the possibility of decapitation, that is, targeting Gaddafi himself. Although this is a controversial subject and is not authorised explicitly in the Security Council resolution, the resolution does authorise UN member states to "take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack".

Given the centralised character of the Libyan regime, and the fact that no major attack against civilians is likely to be undertaken without Gaddafi's explicit endorsement, taking "all necessary measures to protect civilians" could be interpreted under specific circumstances to include taking out Gaddafi himself.

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