The Libya Dilemma: Should the Coalition Provide Air Support for a Rebel Offensive?

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President Barack Obama seems determined to relinquish the hot potato of U.S. leadership over the Libya air war as quickly as possible, although disputes within NATO have prevented the Alliance stepping up to take charge of a mission whose strategic objectives remain unclear.  Having effectively prevented Colonel Gaddafi from sending armored columns to attack rebel-held cities, the question that increasingly faces nations waging a campaigne whose declared aim is simply to protect Libya’s civilian population is: What are the coalition’s responsibilities when it is rebel forces who are on the attack? Clearly, the rebels themselves are expecting the sort of close air support that the NATO countries provide to their own troops in Afghanistan and other conflicts. But enabling a rebel offensive against towns held by Gaddafi’s contravenes the spirit of the U.N. Security Council resolution that enabled the operation, whose stated goal is to stop the fighting and enable a negotiated political settlement.

The question of how far the coalition goes in supporting a rebel offensive cuts to some of the basic principles involved in the Libya intervention.

One of the key reasons cited by Western governments for intervening in Libya was the damaging “demonstration effect” that would result if Colonel Gaddafi survived in power by ruthlessly crushing the rebellion. Autocrats everywhere would contrast his fate with that of President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted after refraining from ordering a bloodbath, and conclude that fighting their way out of a political crisis was the best option. So, best to make an example of  Gaddafi — rather than on allies like Yemen’s President Ali Saleh or the Saudis orchestrating a violent crackdown in Bahrain, whose regimes are far more important to U.S. strategic interests. And, of course, once the President of the United States has declared unambiguously that Gaddafi must go, his survival in power is viewed by many in Washington as an unacceptable erosion of U.S. credibility.

Charges of  double standards aside, there’s a deeper problem with the “demonstration effect”  logic: It fails to reckon with the “demonstration effect” of intervening to realize the goals of an armed rebellion about which precious little is known.

Kosovo is often cited as an example of a successful humanitarian intervention that saved many lives by ending a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by Serb forces. But what’s worth remembering is that the Serb campaign in Kosovo was a brutal retaliation for the growing insurgency of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a hardline separatist group that systematically killed Serbian policemen, administrators and civilians in what was legally a province of Serbia despite its ethnic-Albanian majority. The KLA were not necessarily nice guys. They had been on the State Dept. list of terrorist organizations until 1998 because of their attacks on civilians. The organization was believed to rely on criminal activity for its funding — indeed, a European Union investigation last December accused the movement’s leader,  current Kosovo president Hashem Thaci, of heading a crime syndicate. (Thaci and his government furiously reject that charge.)  After the war, a number of the group’s commanders were also convicted of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal. Kosovo remains partitioned between a small Serbian enclave in the north and the ethnic Albanian remainder, and despite the best efforts of the NATO countries, its declaration of independence has been recognized by less than half of U.N. member states.

So, while ostensibly waged to simply protect a civilian population under threat, the Kosovo war was also a great success story for a small hardcore group that  had provoked the Serbs into launching a campaign of retribution so ugly and vicious that  it drew in NATO to accomplish what the KLA itself had been unable to accomplish — driving the Serbs out of their rebellious province of Kosovo.

Libya’s rebellion, of course, has nothing in common with the KLA; there was no small group of conspirators mounting increasingly damaging attacks over a two-year period; instead a relatively spontaneous protest movement for democratic rights was greeted with a brutal crackdown by Gaddafi, prompting mass defections from the army in Benghazi and other eastern cities in what quickly became a popular armed rebellion.

Still, the danger of a reverse demonstration effect is obvious: Intervening to stop Gaddafi from cracking down on the rebellion may or may not deter other despots from following suit; but providing the air cover that allows the rebellion to triumph, as the rebels expect the West to do,  could also encourage a belief among rebels elsewhere that if they take up arms against a tyrant, NATO will fly to their rescue.

Already, the situation on the ground is highlighting the dilemma in the Western intervention: Air strikes have stopped Gaddafi’s march on Benghazi, but fighting continues at close quarters there and in other cities. And a rebel drive to recapture Ajdabiya on Monday on the back of the bombing campaign appeared to flounder under fire from regime tanks guarding the northern entrances to the city. Many of the rebel fighters on the ground made clear they were expecting Western warplanes to open the way to Ajdabiya and beyond. That’s not a role with which U.S. commanders are comfortable.

to be viewing the NATO planes as the close air support of their own infantry campaign — a role that the operation’s commanders appear reluctant to embrace.

The Washington Post reports:

From a point about five miles from the northern entrance to Ajdabiya, rebels jumped into dozens of vehicles and made a massive push toward the city Monday when they heard jets in the air and the sounds of bombardment. But after about half a mile, the rebels came under fire from loyalist tank and mortar shelling and promptly turned back.

Afterward, rebel commanders said they plan to wait for more allied airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces before pushing forward again.

But in Stuttgart, Germany, the commander of coalition forces involved in the Libya campaign, U.S. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, said the allied mission was to “protect civilians from attack by the regime ground forces” and not to provide close air support for the rebels or “support opposition forces if they engage in offensive operations.”

But it appears unlikely, right now, that the rebels can prevail in offensive operations without considerable foreign air support. And Western powers appear reluctant to intervene to enable a decisive military victory by  a rebel force about whose nature and intentions they know precious little. If the regime were, in fact, to suddenly lose control of the capital, the fact that so many people have been armed and with so little discipline or organizational structure threatens to create the sort of chaos that would require the insertion of peacekeeping forces — a potentially perilous mission that none of the Western powers is willing to contemplate.

President Obama insists that the burden of responsibility for and leadership of the mission must be shared between the U.S. and its allies. First, however, they may need to agree on a coherent strategy beyond simply stopping Gaddafi from butchering civilians.

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