Unable to Defeat Gaddafi, Libyan Rebels Turn to the West

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The problem with the West imposing a “no-fly zone” over Libya — and the problem of Libya’s revolution itself — was highlighted in Monday’s bizarre request by the rebel leadership for Western powers to assassinate Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. That demand, which rebel leaders in Benghazi said their representatives had made when meeting on Monday with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not only reflects a poor grasp of the inclinations of Western governments; it’s a tacit admission that the rebels are incapable of defeating Gaddafi, even if foreign air forces kept the regime’s MiGs and Sukhois grounded.

“We are telling the west we want a no-fly zone, we want tactical strikes against those tanks and rockets that are being used against us and we want a strike against Gaddafi’s compound,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi on Monday. And that list of requests underscores one of the greatest reservations held by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Western leaders about imposing a no-fly zone: That preventing Gaddafi’s air forces from taking to the skies won’t fundamentally alter the outcome of what has become a civil war, but would commit Western militaries to escalate their involvement when the no-fly zone failed to stop Gaddafi, and give them ownership of the result.

The rebels are not expected, for the foreseeable future, to roll into Tripoli on the back of their pickup trucks to claim the head of the tyrant. Intead, they appear to be waging a desperate last stand to save Benghazi, cradle of the revolution, having been forced into a rapid retreat from most of the towns captured earlier as the regime’s forces press their offensive across a wide front. And no, the reason for the rebels’ reversal of fortune is not the failure of the international community to enforce a no-fly zone zone.

The Gaddafi regime has certainly used its air power in its campaign to reclaim the coastal towns from rebel irregulars, but air power — as U.S. military planners well know — is seldom enough to capture territory. By most accounts, Gaddafi’s air force  is playing at best a secondary role, their impact often more psychological than physical as the regime wins the battles on the ground by dint of its vastly superior armaments, particularly artillery and armor, and their advantages in training, organization and discipline over groups of armed citizens with little command structure, and no clear political and military strategy for unseating Gaddafi.

Consensus over a no-fly zone remains elusive at the U.N. Security Council, although momentum is greater now than it has ever been. But if it is adopted, it’s more likely to be part of a plan to save the rebellion by seeking an end to the fighting than to enable a military push to oust Gaddafi. The regime’s offensive has driven rebel fighters out of most of the towns (and ports vital to energy exports) captured along the Gulf of Sirte coastline between Benghazi and Tripoli; government troops have begun attacking Ajdabiya, just three hours drive from Benghazi. But it remains to be seen whether Gaddafi would launch a direct assault on the rebel “capital”, or bypass and encircle it.

Despite the fact that rebel control over Benghazi is far from absolute, with Gaddafi’s security services continuing to operate within the city and a local population increasingly uncertain of rebel victory, retreating rebel fighters would defend Benghazi  with the wall at their backs, urban combat promising heavy casualties on regime forces who, until now, admit they’ve had it easy.

And, of course, a hand to hand fight for Benghazi would endanger the civilian population of Libya’s second city, raising pressure for Western intervention – and Gaddafi has, until, now, appeared to be calibrating his military operations to avoid tripping Western triggers for action. There are plenty of reasons for the regime holding off on attacking Benghazi, even though he  appears to have rallied his own forces, suppressed protest inside the cities he holds and used his tribal alliances to muster sufficient military power to dim expectations of his early demise. Right now, saving Benghazi through some sort of cease-fire, possibly involving a no-fly zone and pumping in aid to boost the capabilities of its defenders to establish it as a viable enclave of rebellion in the way that the Kurdish areas were in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after 1991 may become an increasingly attractive option for international players.

That’s because while Gaddafi currently has the upper hand militarily, he has no political or diplomatic road out of the crisis. The Arab League and the EU have recognized the legitimacy of the rebellion, and humanitarian and economic aid is expected to begin pouring into rebel-held territory. Tightening sanctions will limit the regime’s room to maneuver, and the very fact of the rebellion has shattered the aura of invincibility on which a personality-cult dictatorship depends.

The path of frontal military assault on Tripoli has proven to be something of a Quixotic tilt given the limitations of the rebels’ capabilities. Western powers aren’t likely to intervene on the ground militarily on behalf of a rebel alliance about which they know very little, in a country where tribal affinities still appear to play a significant role in shaping the balance of power, and which provided by far the highest per-capita contribution of any Arab countries to the ranks of foreign jihadists in Iraq. There’s no question that Islamist fighters are playing a significant role in the rebellion, which probably also gives pause to Western powers.

So, consolidating the rebellion in Benghazi and building its capacity, while tightening the pressure on the regime may be the preferred option of Western and regional powers, hoping that the aftershocks of the rebellion and the inability of the regime to restore the status quo ante would eventually result in Gaddafi being ousted in some form of coup. With or without a no-fly zone, that’s a far from certain prospect. But right now it looks more tenable than waiting for a successful rebel assault on Tripoli.