The Endgame in Libya: Political Settlement or Boots on the Ground

27 July, 2011 — Libya Conflict

We’re now into the fifth month of NATO’s bombing campaign and Gaddafi has yet to be ousted from power. So far NATO’s act of “selective vigilanteism” has not brought down the government in Tripoli but it has entirely changed the narrative of the conflict in Libya, from an indigenous uprising to an act of self-defense against a foreign aggressor intent on shamelessly cloaking its designs of regime change in humanitarian garb. On July 26, NATO spokeswoman, Carmen Romero reiterated that Gaddafi “cannot wait us out… as long as his forces continue to attack or threaten civilians and as long as they continue and try and cut off humanitarian aid, our operations will continue in Libya [sic].”

While air war alone cannot win a conflict, NATO has undoubtedly had an impact. The Libyan army’s arsenal of tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles have been significantly downgraded. Government forces have adapted their tactics to defend themselves against the relentless pounding from the air. The Libyan military is no longer operating out of its barracks, its forces are blending in with the environment and they are using civilian vehicles. At the same time, more and more Libyan civilians are joining militias to fight the insurgents. These militias are not distinguishable from the air by the rebel air force (NATO).

NATO has escalated the bombardments often hitting the same targets over and over. It has effectively run out of “hard” military targets and is relentlessly pursuing “softer” targets with the potential for yet more civilian casualties. According to Col. Roland Lavoie of NATO’s operational command in Naples, Italy, Libyan government forces increasingly are occupying civilian facilities such as stables, farm buildings, commercial and industrial warehouses, factories and food processing plants, “rendering them valid and necessary targets for NATO.” In targeting civilian structures, NATO has become the best recruiting agent for the Libyan government and is breaking international law.

Mission creep has continued on other fronts as well. Western mercenaries have set boots on the ground. Through private security firms they are funded with taxpayer money. NATO has introduced Apache helicopters as well as predator drones. At the same time, France, Italy and Qatar have stepped up arms supplies to the rebels in violation of the UN resolutions authorizing this intervention, but none of this will tilt the military balance in the short-term since Libyan government forces have dug into defensive positions and are now at an advantage in urban warfare against attacking rebels.

As the conflict continues, it is increasingly becoming a test of wills and resources. It ultimately boils down to whether the financial and military reserves of the Libyan government will outlast the willingness of NATO to sustain its costly campaign. With 15 billion dollars in gold reserves and investments worth billions outside of the UN’s reach in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the Libyan government will be able to sustain itself for years. NATO, however, is under severe time pressure. Public support for this intervention is eroding on all fronts. Norway will withdraw its planes on August 1. Dutch Defense minister, Hans Hillen, forecast a heated debate within NATO if the campaign is not over by the end of September and argued that NATO allies who thought bombing would force Muammar Gaddafi to step down were “naive” to begin with.

It has become clear that NATO was hoping to bring down the Libyan government through implosion. However, the mass defections have stopped and there is no realistic prospect of a rebel offensive to advance on the capital and to encourage an uprising there. While there is the risk of a food crisis in most areas of Libya, this does not yet hold true for government-controlled areas according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The government is able to maintain food subsidies. Government wages as well as pensions are still being paid to those who are displaced. If, and when they run out, there is no doubt who the majority of citizens will blame.

NATO’s campaign which is collectively punishing the Libyan people by bombing ports under government control and illegally preventing oil as well as other supplies from reaching civilians is further increasing public support for Gaddafi. Recently Gaddafi has been able to rally hundreds of thousands of supporters in government-held cities. The rebels, on the other hand, never loath to exaggeration, claim to maintain an underground network of just over a 100 supporters in Tripoli. With government supporters having access to free arms as weapons depots have been cleared, the prospect of an uprising in Tripoli is not in the offing.

As the conflict has escalated and a cycle of violence has ensued, the implosion of the Libyan government has become exceedingly unrealistic. Even if Gaddafi and his sons are killed, it cannot be expected that the Libyan government will collapse. Rather than lowering the morale of Gaddafi supporters, this intervention has polarized Libyan society and boosted his support. Gaddafi no longer has to stretch logic to argue that the rebels are Al Qaida-inspired Islamists infusing the coffee of Libyan youths with hallucinogenics. Libyans have woken up to smell NATO’s “humanitarian” coffee.

NATO now is at a crossroads. Ultimately, its options whittle down to two: A negotiated political settlement or putting boots on the ground. The former is unappealing because it could be perceived as a possible defeat. Gaddafi could remain in power for a transitional period and he or his son could plausibly win a post-transition election supervised by a neutral peacekeeping force composed of non-NATO members. The self-appointed international vigilantes would have to set their spin machinery in motion to explain this turn of events and prevent it from causing a backlash at the ballot box back home.

In principle, the requirements for a negotiated settlement are present. Gaddafi has repeatedly indicated that he is willing to accept a ceasefire, neutral peace-keepers, and elections. Thus far, there has been no discussion on the specifics or the implementation of a possible transitional arrangement leading to free and fair elections because NATO and the rebel forces are pursuing a maximalist strategy. On the one hand, they have been making noises about a political solution to the conflict and the importance of Libyans deciding their own fate, on the other hand, they are setting preconditions by insisting that Gaddafi must step down before a ceasefire is declared.

The alternative is to put boots on the ground and launch a full scale invasion. This would be another violation of UN resolution 1973 which specifically “excludes a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” The resolution also mandated a comprehensive arms embargo. Previously, NATO’s chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has said that “NATO will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo… We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm people.” However, he recently defended the French arms shipments to the rebels which he now claims are in line with the resolution and stated that “the delivery of weapons has taken place as part of protection of civilians and the ability to protect themselves against attacks.”

In this scenario, the next act of reverse engineering of international law would be to claim that UN resolution 1973 no longer applies because the unelected Transitional National Council has now been recognized as the legitimate and sole government of Libya by “the international community” (i.e. NATO and a handful of other states in contravention of international convention). The U.N. charter covering the right of self-defense could be invoked to deploy troops to support the Transitional National Council in guarding against attacks by the “outlaw” Muammar Gaddafi and his “mercenaries.” In another act of backward logic, this could also be packaged in the name of “national security” based on the claim that Gaddafi now poses a potential terrorist threat to the West (after he was attacked).

There are two primary obstacles to this outcome. In the short-term, a skeptical public would have to be convinced and political opposition would have to be overcome. Barring the sudden revelation of a “terrorist plot” or an attack ordered by Gaddafi’s forces, the appetite for further escalation is lacking. In the long-term, the prospects for a full-scale military intervention in Libya don’t look promising. The inevitable result of a Libyan invasion would be protracted guerrilla warfare with former Gaddafi supporters. Once they assumed power, there also would be no guarantee that the loose coalition of rag-tag Islamists, former Gaddafi loyalists, monarchists, tribalists, youth activists, and other factions comprising the rebel forces would coalesce successfully into a functioning and stable government. It will be very difficult to spin this as “mission accomplished.”

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