U.S. Faces a Libya Stalemate, What are its Options?

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That which has been obvious for some time now is finally being officially acknowledged: Libya’s power struggle is stalemated, and is likely to remain that way on the basis of the current level of NATO commitment. That was the grim assessment in congressional testimony Thursday by General Carter Ham, the U.S. commander who led the initial phases of the operation. The rag-tag rebel forces appear largely unable to take and hold ground from Col. Gaddafi’s loyalists, even with NATO air power largely preventing the regime from using its air power or moving armor and other heavy weaponry around. Indeed, the regime appears to be consolidating its position rather than collapsing on the ground. And the second friendly-fire incident in a week reportedly involving NATO planes inadvertently killing rebel fighters simply added to the gloomy outlook of the air campaign.

Frustrated rebel leaders have been urging the Western powers to use more aggressive strikes to tip the battlefield in their favor, but there’s little sign of that happening. If anything, the withdrawal earlier this week of the key U.S. ground-attack aircraft — A-10 Warthog tank-killing jets and the C-130 gunships — suggests diminished ambitions for the military campaign. And the regime continues to have the better of the ground exchanges. Rather than escalate the war, some key NATO members are pushing to end it: Turkey is accelerating efforts to achieve a ceasefire, claiming it has had a positive response from rebel leaders to a three-point plan involving withdrawal by Gaddafi’s forces from besieged cities such as Misrata, the opening of humanitarian corridors to those, and an agreement on holding free elections. Those proposals are to be taken to Tripoli by Libya’s deputy foreign minister, although a substantial gap remains between the regime and the rebels over whether the Gaddafis can remain in power during any transition.

Ham’s testimony made clear that if they wanted to topple Gaddafi’s regime — a stated objective of the key players in the military campaign, Britain, France and the U.S. even if not necessarily through the military campaign —  NATO powers, first and foremost the United States, would have to invest more military resources than they are currently doing. Ham acknowledged that it would probably require the insertion of foreign ground forces to decisively turn the tide right now — the rebels have proven no match for Gaddafi’s forces, who have them largely pegged back in their eastern strongholds. He said the U.S. would have to consider whether to send in troops.

But escalating Western direct involvement in Libya remains unlikely, at best, for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s patently clear, by now, that Libya is in the throes of a civil war — even if the majority of Libyans detest Col. Gaddafi, it’s patently clear that a sizable minority is passionately committed to his regime and willing to fight for it. The strength of the regime on the ground has been underestimated, and the power of the rebellion overestimated. There’s no quick and easy military solution, here.
  2. The U.S. has until now made clear that it sees limited national interests at stake in Libya, envisaging its role as that of supporting a European-led intervention. But the Europeans appear ill-equipped to escalate the air war, much less launch a ground war to topple Gaddafi.
  3. The “pottery barn rule” still applies: If it took a Western ground invasion to topple Gaddafi, the Western powers would be forced to own the outcome, which could be extremely messy. The dynamics among and between the various armed groups that would survive a regime collapse — from pro Gaddafi militias, tribal formations, and various factions of a rebel army that is anything but coherent — are barely understood, and there’s no real state left with institutions that could absorb and reconcile these groups. It may have been recognized by Italy, France, Qatar and Kuwait as the sole legitimate government of Libya, but the Transitional National Council based in Benghazi does not even pretend to be a truly representative national body. Knocking out the regime now through the application of Western military force would create a vacuum that would very likely suck in foreign troops to maintain order and oversee the building of a new Libyan state from scratch. Sure, President Obama would take some licks domestically if he fails to decisively topple Gaddafi, but he hardly wants to run for reelection having committed U.S. troops to a third nation-building mission in the Muslim world.
  4. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which provides the legal authority for foreign militaries to protect Libyan civilians, can’t be translated into a regime-change operation without jeopardizing the alliance. Key NATO members such as Germany and Turkey oppose escalation, and Ankara is pressing hard for a cease-fire. Stretching the permissions afforded by Resolution 1973 would also jeopardize future international cooperation on humanitarian interventions. (Russia and China may not have voted for this, but they enabled it by refraining from wielding their veto power at the Security Council; if they believe NATO used the authorization as a pretext to pursue regime-change, they may not easily be persuaded to allow future humanitarian interventions.)
  5. Whatever Arab support exists for the current operations is likely to rapidly erode if it involved sending in foreign troops — remember, even the rebels themselves loudly opposed that idea in the early days of the rebellion.

No Western power has shown any enthusiasm for sending in troops, and the alternative being discussed is arming and training the rebels to offer Gaddafi’s forces more of a fight. But even on that option, there’s hesitation: Aside from concerns over the coherence and makeup of the rebel forces — as underscored by a public spat between two rivals, Khalifa Hifter (who returned from two decades in the U.S.) and former interior minister Mohammed Fatah-Younis who joined the rebels as their uprising began over who was in charge of the army — there’s a recognition that turning the rebels into a credible fighting force could take many months. France and Britain are reportedly already urging Arab countries to fund mercenary contractors to train the rebels. But going that route would require, at least in the near term, acceptance of a de facto partition of Libya into a rebel-held east and a Gaddafi-held west. Some analysts suggest such an outcome, reminiscent of the Balkans in the early ’90s, is the worst of all outcomes, both for the Libyan people themselves and for the international community. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman argues for a quick “regime-kill” option to settle matters before the coalition collapses, rather than accepting a stalemate under which Gaddafi profits from waning international enthusiasm for the operation over weeks and months, and many Libyans unfortunate enough to be in towns controlled by his forces suffer ongoing brutality.

But that proposal doesn’t deal with many of the potential consequences that may be holding Western powers back. It’s a safer bet, right now, that that the battlefield stalemate produces some form of truce — although not for some time, yet. Both sides, in fact have set out their opening bids on cease-fire terms, but neither side is remotely ready to accept the other’s bottom lines. Gaddafi insists on maintaining himself or his sons in charge over any political transition; the rebels insist there will be no peace as long at they remain in Tripoli — and the Western powers will not accept Gaddafi setting the terms. So there will be an escalation of fighting in the days and possibly weeks ahead, but not to the level needed to bring the war to a decisive and rapid end by storming Gaddafi’s citadels. Instead, the military contest for each side right now presupposes an eventual truce, and is aimed at shaping its terms.