‘Arm the Rebels’ Cry Reflects Western Desperation on Libya

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Talk by U.S. and British leaders of the possibility of arming Libya’s rebels is a sign of desperation. After all, the amorphous rebellion appears to have little military organization, and Secretary of State Clinton admits that the allies “do not know as much as we would like to” about its makeup. Leaders of the Benghazi-based National Council worked the halls of the coalition summit in London that discussed plans for Libya on Tuesday, and offered a pleasing vision of Western-style secular democracy. But the extent of their authority on the ground is far from clear.

Even discussing the prospect of arming the rebels is a sign that Western hopes have been dashed that a military mission authorized by the United Nations Security Council to protect Libya’s civilians from military attack would lead in short order to the collapse of the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The regime’s forces are proving more than a match for rebel fighters on the ground, even without the advantages of the air power, armor and heavy artillery that Western air strikes have eliminated. Rather than a rout, the loyalist retreat from eastern oil ports such as Brega and Ras Lanuf appears to have been tactical, and rebel boasts that they were on the verge of capturing Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte proved empty, on Tuesday, when a loyalist counterattack drove them from that town’s outskirts, and also from the next town, Bin Jawad. And as TIME’s Abigail Hauslohner reports, the retreat from Bin Jawad demonstrated not only the military limitations of the rebel forces, but also a political weakness: According to rebel fighters there, the town’s civilian population appeared to prefer the regime to the rebellion.

The rebels, in fact, appear unlikely to topple Gaddafi’s regime without foreign military intervention on terms far more aggressive than those authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Even coalition air power has proved insufficient, thus far, to give Gaddafi’s opponents a decisive edge when it comes to attacking regime-held towns as opposed to defending their own turf.

While President Barack Obama has taken care to emphasize that the military mission’s goals are limited but that it sets in motion Gaddafi’s inevitable demise through a combination of pressures, other Western leaders such as Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron have taken positions that make any outcome short of Gaddafi’s immediate ouster likely to be read as a failure of the intervention.

But as much as Britain and France might like to press for military-engineered regime change, once NATO takes command of all aspects of the military intervention on Thursday evening, the mission’s terms are likely to be strictly limited to enforcing Security Council Resolution 1973 — which calls for the protection of civilians, the enforcement of an arms embargo, and efforts to achieve a cease-fire and political negotiations. Using its military power to ensure that one side prevails in what looks increasingly like a Libyan civil war is unlikely to meet the approval of NATO decision makers no matter how much ┬áBritain and France would like the current intervention to facilitate regime-change. And NATO takes decisions by consensus, meaning that countries opposed to a prolonged military campaign for regime change — such as Turkey, Germany and Italy — have de facto veto power.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen set the tone, Tuesday, telling Reuters that “there’s no military solution, solely, to the problems in Libya,” and urging “all parties involved to seek political solutions [to the conflict] sooner rather than later.”

There’s likely to be an escalation of air strikes over the next two days aimed at aggressively rolling back the regime’s control on the ground, but once NATO’s in charge, the rules of engagement will likely be restricted to protecting civilians. So, unless Gaddafi’s regime folds this week, all sides may be confronting the prospect of a protracted war and, perhaps, a de facto territorial partition of Libya into regime and rebel zones — a scenario that risks repeating the experience of the Balkans during the 1990s.

The idea of arming the rebels to even up the military odds and improve their chances of seizing and holding ground from the regime has not been raised in any of the formal consultations of the coalition, but it’s an idea that U.S. and British leaders have begun advocating. They say the Security Council resolution contains a loophole that makes such an option permissible despite the arms embargo, although many other parties to the coalition and resolution dispute that interpretation.

Arming the rebels, even if it were authorized, is an option that assumes a protracted war: It would take many months to get heavier weapons to the rebel forces, and for them to be trained to use them and organized into effective fighting units. Even then, that’s a big if. It’s plainly going to be extremely difficult holding together a coalition assembled to protect civilians if its operations include providing air support and weaponry to a rebel combatant force. After all, combatants are, by definition, not civilians, and nor are all of Libya’s civilians in the rebel camp.

But breaking from the consensus that assured the multilateral authorization for military action so central to President Obama’s decision to commit to the operation risks not only eroding the mission’s international support, but also the very principle of humanitarian intervention. After all, those parties that were, in many cases quite reluctantly, willing to go along with a limited military intervention to save civilian lives, are unlikely to do so again for the foreseeable future if they perceive the key Western powers as having taken that authorization as license for a more far-reaching intervention.

Diplomatic efforts are likely to intensify to broker some form of truce. Right now, though, coalition leaders are demanding that Gaddafi step down as the starting point, while the dictator remains defiant and demands that the Western powers halt their offensive. That could, of course, qualify as the opening of negotiations, with both sides setting out their maximum demands. But for the coming days, at least, most of the negotiating will be done via Tomahawk cruise missiles and grad rockets.