Why NATO May Stop Short of Bombing Gaddafi’s Regime to Smithereens

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The question is not whether Libya’s rebels will capture Colonel Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte, or storm his citadel in Tripoli; it’s whether NATO will hand them those prizes by escalating its air war with the aim of destroying Gaddafi’s regime. Coalition air strikes have broken the grip of Gaddafi’s forces on the cities of eastern Libya that they had recaptured over the past two weeks, and NATO air power now effectively precludes the regime using its heavy weaponry to hold territories many miles from its own strongholds. But the equation could be different in Sirte and more so in Tripoli, where Gaddafi maintains a measure of popular support and his forces — and his armed supporters from within the civilian population — would be defending the city from a rebel offensive. The rebels have recaptured Ajdabiya, and the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, without a fight; the regime’s forces simply retreated under the barrage of coalition air strikes. (Rebels claimed the same had happened in Sirte overnight into Monday, although that hasn’t been verified.)

The rebels’ own military capabilities, by measure of weaponry, training, organization and command remain distinctly limited. So, as NATO powers and others involved in the campaign convene in London on Tuesday to plot their next steps, they face the question of whether to use their military leverage to assault the regime on its “home” turf and effectively bomb it out of existence. There are good reasons to believe they’re unlikely to go that far. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Sunday that the alliance’s actions would be limited to implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, “nothing more, nothing less.” And that resolution mandates foreign powers to protect Libya’s civilians through imposing no-fly zone and an arms embargo, and destroying armor and other heavy weaponry that menaces civilian population centers. But it says nothing about regime-change; on the contrary, it requires member states to work for an immediate cease-fire and a democratic political solution to Libya’s civil conflict.

The U.S. is already moving to reduce its own exposure in Libya, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting that the mission is close to meeting its goals. And the handover to NATO command from an ambiguous “coalition of the willing” may be even more significant in shaping the war’s outcome than the retrenchment of the U.S. role: Turkey and other NATO member states have fought hard to have the Alliance make the decisions over how military force will be used by foreign powers in Libya, precisely because that allows them to more effectively limit the campaign to the goals laid out in the U.N. resolution.

France resisted NATO control for the same reason. Its  own freedom of action in Libya — exercised to a degree that has annoyed a number of its allied powers — would be severely restricted by answering to the command of an Alliance that takes decisions by consensus. Paris may be so gung-ho for regime change that it has raced ahead of all other  coalition members   by formally recognizing the rebel National Council as the only legitimate government of Libya, but NATO command allows the likes of Germany and Turkey, which originally opposed military intervention in Libya, a far greater say in setting the terms and limits of that intervention. That prospect prompted a clearly piqued President Nicolas Sarkozy to claim, last Friday, that “it would be playing into the hands of Colonel Gaddafi to say NATO is taking over”.

But the U.S. and some of its key allies are somewhat more leery of a full-blown military intervention to enable a victory by one side in a civil war whose dynamics they don’t profess to understand very well. Gaddafi is loathed as a brutal tyrant by many of his countrymen, yet there are also significant numbers willing to fight and die for him — and some observers have warned that the power of patronage through a tribal system could be a factor on both sides of the divide.

Indications from the Obama Administration thus far suggest that the U.S. does not intend foreign military power  to directly force Gaddafi out of power, even if it’s designed to create the conditions for that goal —  by preventing him from using his heavy-weaponry to suppress opposition; consolidating rebel control over those parts of the country where they’ve managed to drive the regime out; enabling effective administration in those areas to the extent of enabling them to market oil shipped through ports they control; at the same time as isolating Gaddafi through sanctions. If the setbacks in the east don’t force the rapid collapse of the the regime, the hope is the combination of factors outlined above would eventually have the same effect.

Turkey shares the goal of easing Gaddafi out and empowering Libyans to choose their leaders, but its government believes that the war threatens to foment a chaos that would force an even greater international role in a more toxic and dangerous Libyan environment . For that reason, Ankara is already pressing its NATO allies to seek a cease-fire  and a political settlement. Turkey is already brokering talks with both the regime and the rebels, having kept its channels of communication with Tripoli open throughout the crisis while at the same time it is taking charge of shipping humanitarian aid to the rebel capital of Benghazi. It has already been tapped by the U.S., Britain and other Western countries to communicate with Gaddafi on their behalf, and it has interceded to secure the release of a number of Western journalists held by the regime.

But achieving the cease-fire demanded by Resolution 1973 could be a tortuous path. Gaddafi’s regime may still be professing interest in a truce, but it was doing the same the day after the resolution was adopted, even as its forces unleashed a fierce offensive to overrun the remaining rebel strongholds in the east. Its cease-fire talk will not easily be trusted by the rebels or NATO countries. Nor is their any clear indication yet from the rebel camp of whether they’d be willing to accept a truce, particularly now that they feel the wind is at their backs.

But absent a precipitous collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Turkey’s perspective may become more influential in the weeks ahead. Even now, it’s clear that  the collapse of a regime built on a personality cult rather than on effective institutions could leave behind a number of armed formations with limited political control or capacity for governance. A post-Gaddafi Libyan state will have to be constructed from scratch, and is likely to require the presence of substantial numbers of foreign peacekeeping troops. That’s not a job any Western power would want to take on, and Arab and African armies may not be in a position to do. Turkey, on the other hand, with the second largest army in NATO and good relations on both sides of the conflict, would be a natural fit for such a role. This week, however, the focus remains on whether or not NATO plans to enable a rebel drive on Tripoli.

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