As Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces closed in on the rebel capital of Benghazi, Thursday, the Obama Administration not only came around to the idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, but sought — and won — U.N. Security Council authorization for ground attacks on regime forces threatening to storm the rebel “capital” of Benghazi. Western and at least two Arab air forces (believed to be Qatar and UAE) stood ready to launch attacks “within hours” of the vote, according to the Guardian quoting Western officials, in order to stop a regime advance on Benghazi.
The resolution, adopted with ten ayes and five abstentions, authorizes member states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” It also imposes a flight ban on all but humanitarian flights.
That allows the U.S. and allied air forces to attack Libyan ground forces menacing Benghazi or any other civilian population centers. Its implementation would certainly put paid to Gaddafi’s threat to march his forces into Benghazi on Thursday night — if, indeed, that was more than an empty threat, or a message to his own supporters inside the city to show themselves and attack the rebels.
But while it saves the rebellion from military defeat, the U.N. intervention also precludes the rebels seeking a military victory. The international military intervention is attached to a demand for “the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence” and “the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.”
A cease-fire that saves Benghazi and rebel-held cities further east but restrains a renewed rebel offensive may be bitterly disappointing to some in rebellion that has paid heavily in blood to bring down a brutal and tyrannical regime. But it could be the best outcome they can hope for right now given the balance of military forces on the ground. After all, far from marching on Tripoli, the rebellion has been engaged in a desperate battle to protect the approaches to Benghazi, which Gaddafi appeared on TV on Thursday to warn that his forces would invade the city “tonight”.
That, of course, may have been an idle boast: Gaddafi’s forces had over the past week put to flight the rag-tag rebel irregulars that had earlier raced across the desert towards the capital with little by way of weaponry and less by way of organization, discipline or a war plan. Regime forces were able to force a rebel retreat while keeping their distance, relying on their overwhelming advantage in artillery and, to a lesser extent, air power. But reports on Thursday that an attack by regime forces on Ajdabiya, the last town before the rebel capital of Benghazi, was repelled by regular army units who had defected, using tanks and a helicopter, suggested that the regime’s forces may not fare as well in the sort of close quarters combat that taking Benghazi would require. The emergence on the frontline of the army defectors — together with the fact that the rebels would be defending their home turf in Benghazi — suggests the regime may not, in fact, be in a position to capture the rebel stronghold.
Indeed, Libya’s official news agency had said earlier Thursday that government forces would cease military operations from midnight Sunday, in order to give rebels the opportunity to surrender and benefit from an amnesty offered by the regime. Laying siege may have been Gaddafi’s preferred option for dealing with Benghazi before it became clear that the U.N. might authorize international intervention.
The international intervention, motivated by the need to protect civilians, is designed to achieve the cease-fire called for on Wednesday by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon — its purpose is not to provide air support for a rebel counteroffensive. But nor is it designed to harden the effective partition of the country into regime- and rebel-held territories, stressing the need to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of Libya. The intention is to pursue and promote a political solution that reflects the will of the Libyan people.
So, even if a ceasefire enforces a military stalemate that leaves Gaddafi still in power, moving the struggle over Libya’s future off the military terrain is more likely to work in favor of the opposition than that of the regime. The rebellion has shattered the aura of invincibility that has been the basis of Gaddafi’s regime of fear. Having failed to crush the rebellion by force, and with his power now trimmed, the international isolation and encirclement of the regime may raise pressures that force its internal collapse. Opposition supporters may not be able mount a military attack on Tripoli, but if citizens rise up drive his enforcers out of a town, he’ll be unable to send tanks or bombers to reclaim it.
But the regime has proven to be more resilient than many had hoped, until now, and the military stalemate stalemate created by enforcing the U.N. resolution amid a ferocious power power struggle on the ground will take the regime, the rebels and the international community into uncharted, and potentially perilous waters. Still, the people of Benghazi can sleep easier, tonight, knowing that their city is finally under international protection from the bombs and shells of the tyrant.