NATO Confronts a Crisis in Libya: Its Air War Has Not Dislodged Gaddafi

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The split in NATO over its Libya operation ought to come as no surprise: it’s precisely because of the differences within the alliance over the terms and goals of the mission, and the inevitably limiting effect of the alliance’s consensus-based decisionmaking, that France had been reluctant to cede command to NATO in the first place. But Tuesday’s demand by Britain and France for NATO to urgently intensify its air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi forces in the key battleground cities of Ajdabiyah and Misratah reflects the fact that the Western military intervention in Libya now faces two crises, one tactical and the other strategic.

The tactical problem is this: even within the limited terms that NATO has set for the operation — to protect civilians by preventing the use of heavy weapons against population centers  — the mission is failing. Having adapted to the air strikes by adopting more mobile warfare techniques and moving their heavier weaponry inside cities, where attacks pose a risk of civilian casualties, Gaddafi’s forces have not only prevented the rebels from gaining new ground but also pushed them onto the defensive. Rebels are battling to hold on to Ajdabiyah, the key approach town to their capital of Benghazi, and the regime’s brutal pummeling of Misratah continues.

NATO is being called upon to escalate its operations merely to prevent a rout of the rebels in those two towns. But the bigger, strategic crisis arises from the fact that, four weeks into the air campaign, it has become increasingly obvious that the limited operation to restrain the regime’s ability to use heavy weaponry, even if it were being implemented more effectively in Misratah and Ajdabiyah, appears unlikely to dislodge Gaddafi from control of most of western Libya. That, of course, was never the strategic goal of the NATO operation or of the U.N. Security Council Resolution that authorized it. The stated purpose of the mission is to stop the fighting in Libya, creating a cease-fire and enabling a political solution. And the manner in which the alliance has pursued the mission is consistent with that goal, tactical shortcomings notwithstanding. The U.S., by withdrawing its most effective ground-attack capabilities and then all of its combat aircraft from the mission, has signaled its acceptance of goals more limited than regime change.

Even if stepped-up operations by NATO aircraft manage to tip the balance in favor of the rebels in either (or both of) Ajdabiyah and Misratah, it will alter only the contours of  the stalemate in Libya, not the fact of it. NATO, in fact, is pushing for a cease-fire and political solution sooner rather than later, as its Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, put it on Sunday, recognizing that there is no military solution to the conflict in Libya.

And that raises the basic strategic dilemma facing the NATO countries as well as other partners to the operation, who plan to consult at two meetings, one in Berlin and the other in the Qatari capital of Doha on Wednesday to review the progress in Libya. The stalemate is making a truce inevitable; the fighting on the ground — and the politicking in foreign capitals — is now about shaping its terms. And the key question facing those who initiated the war is whether Gaddafi or his sons will be at the table in any political solution. The rebels insist that the Gaddafi family has no role in Libya’s future, and they refused an African Union–brokered cease-fire offer blessed by Gaddafi because it didn’t require the dictator to step down.

But the rebels have limited leverage behind their demands, and much will depend on the extent to which foreign powers are willing to back their insistence that the Gaddafis go — and not simply through statements but through the systematic escalation of the war in order to force the ruling family out. Even if British and French agitation prompt a tactical escalation aimed at tipping the balance in some contested towns, it remains unlikely that NATO will adopt regime change as the mission’s goal. The rebels’ leverage in truce talks, in fact, is largely reducible to that which Western countries are prepared to do for them on the battlefield. And that means the key strategic challenge facing the foreign powers involved in Libya is to decide their bottom line on what would be an acceptable outcome of the current phase of the Libya conflict. There’s no indication, thus far, that even the most gung-ho of  Western powers involved in Libya, France and Britain, are willing to deliver the military leverage necessary to force the Gaddafis to exit stage left, even though they’re insisting on non-negotiable cease-fire terms that prevent Gaddafi from continuing military attacks on his own people.

Indeed, there’s much to be read into the fact that one of the Libyans expected to play a key role in Doha is not allied with the rebel National Council at all — Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s former Foreign Minister who defected to Britain just two weeks ago has traveled to Qatar with the blessing of the British government, which hopes he can play a mediating role between the rebels and the Gaddafis. One British government source told the Telegraph, “He’s a Gaddafi insider. He may be able to offer solutions where others are falling short.” For the same reason, the rebels are furious that Koussa — whom they say “has blood on his hands” — will get a place at the table in Doha. But that may simply be a foretaste of rebel disappointments to come.