Gordian knot of the Libyan war

Ricardo Alcaro, researcher with the Institute of International Affairs in Rome, Italy:

Let’s start our talk by emphasizing that it is understandable that people start thinking about ground operation in Libya, after France, the UK and Italy announced they were sending 10 military advisors each to Benghazi. I think that it is still premature to predict that the ground operation will follow. In my opinion, a ground operation is an extremely remote possibility, not justified in any case by the current circumstances, and also very hardly justified within the current legal framework, in which NATO is carrying out the military operation against Gaddafi’s forces.

The problem with the operation in Libya is what in military jargon called “mission creep”. So we started with one objective, clearly stated in the UN Security Council resolution 1973, that authorized military force against Libya, and this objective is protection of civilians; but we end up with another objective, which was in a way implicit in the former objective, which is forced regime change by foreign arms. This is not foreseen by any means in the resolution of the Security Council and it is not acceptable to many countries outside the western world. So this connection between open and widely accepted objective function by the UN, protection of civilians, and closely intertwined of forced displacing of Gaddafi, which however is not a part of the mandate, given by the UN, and which is quite strongly opposed by many countries, starting with China and Russia, but also many members of the African Union. So this connection was produced as a stalemate, because France and Britain were fully aware of the risk of mission creep, when they started the operation against Gaddafi; they hoped that Gaddafi would surrender, once confronted with the international coalition using arms against him, or that rebel forces would have won a victory on ground. So we need an option actually occurred, we need a scenario actually occurred.

Bombing campaign as usual has proved extremely difficult to force up political results by its means; bombing campaigns are very effective as complementary means in part of a broader political strategy, in part of terms of achieving a crucial military objective, such as a displacing a dictator, where they have proven to be far less effective. I just think of Kosovo, and in Kosovo they had a 78-day long bombing campaign, which forced Serbian to negotiate, but which did not force Milošević out of all this. So this is the problem with the bombing campaign.

The second problem is that the rebels proved to be quite less reliable in military terms, than perhaps speculated earlier. So we have a stalemate, in which Gaddafi’s forces cannot win because of NATO’s pressure from the air, but rebel forces are stuck basically to their defensive positions.

We have many options here: you may either intensify the military operation by, for instance, intensifying the bombing campaign, you may put troops on ground, which is the ground operation option; you can arm the rebels. I think that all these options are very problematic and besides they are unlikely to resolve the problem. If you like, I can go through the three options point by point.

First of all, the ground operation, as I told you before, is still too early to talk about. Of course, there is going to be much talk about it in military circles, but politically it is extremely difficult for the leaders of France, Britain and the United States to justify a ground operation. We do not have to forget also that the resolution 1973, authorizing the use of force against Gaddafi in order to protect civilians, has a large mandate, and that so we can say, that the objective of protecting civilians can be reached by using all necessary means, borrowing an occupation force. International law experts and policy-makers in the United States, France and Britain can still argue that there is a distinction between occupation forces and ground forces. For instance, it is said, “We are sending in ground forces, but not to occupy the land, just to protect the humanitarian missions”, which is debated right now. Perhaps in legal terms you may have a point to say that this is allowed by the resolution, but in political terms it is extremely difficult, that the non-western world would buy this argument. Here in the west this may have impression, at least people are not really aware of the extent, to which the Libya military campaign is received in the non-western world, in almost imperialist terms. In spite of all the answers is put on the UN vote by the Americans, by the French, by the Britons, the outside world is quite skeptic; it is not a pose to the military operation there, and this international legitimacy problem is definitely something NATO has to do with. Another problem is in term of collision with the NATO, because we have been talking about France, Britain and the US, there are only two other NATO members, which are actually taken part in the military operations; there are others like Italy, for instance, which have more sort of supporting logistic role, but others still have almost no role at all, Germany for instance, Turkey, a key NATO member and a key player in the region, which was before the military operation started, outspokenly opposed to this operation; and it still is somehow, Turkey would definitely not like the military campaign to intensify.

And then there is the third problem – popular support within NATO members for the operation. For instance, in the United States there are the results of a very recent poll, conducted by the Washington Post, when 60% of the Americans say, they approve the way Obama has on the Libya crisis, but why? Not because Obama decided to intertwine, but because Obama decided to intertwine within certain limits, so the moment you will cross those limits, you will definitely have a public opinion problem. I do not feel, the United States taking this step, which the US president made plainly clear yesterday, saying that Libya is not even at the middle of the US list of priorities; the US has two wars ongoing – in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has to do with the transition process in Egypt, with the crisis in the Gulf, there is a problem of Iran, the problem of Israeli-Palestinian conflict – these are the regional priorities for the US now.

So the intensification of the military campaign is quite problematic in many respects, and so is also the option of arming the rebels, because to arm a rebel does not mean to make him an effective soldier. To do that he needs training and time, perhaps more time than the public opinion of NATO members, involved into the operation, are willing to grant the leaders. And apart from that, I mean, the moment you start arming the rebels, which by all accounts are an unknown quantity, you do not know who they are, so you are really taking a risk.

Also here is the problem of international achievement, because rebels want they are armed and trained by western powers, are going to be perceived, and they are already to a certain extent, a sort of western proxies, and this would weaken again the position of the West regarding Libya. So what to do this is the problem, and we might intensify bombing campaign, we might arm the rebels; even though intensifying bombing campaign would also mean provoking more civilian casualties, which again would reflect very badly in western public opinion.

But there is a way out, which is to change the objection, so to stop this mission creep. How to de-link protection of civilians from forced regime change? The way to do that is to negotiate regime change; so you have to negotiate Gaddafi’s departure, you cannot force it by bombs. We already have a sort of political platform, prepared by the African Union, in particular by South African President Zuma; and this international mediation option has many pros and some cons. The pros are the fact, that there is already a blueprint, this one prepared by the African Union, now there is an option of international mediation, leading to national reconciliation between Gaddafi’s loyalists and Gaddafi’s opponents. We have wide-spread international consensus, it could be easily functioned by the UN Security Council, it would be full line with the resolution 1973 spirit, that of avoiding civilian casualties, avoiding a war. But there is one main con, and it is Gaddafi himself. The US and French presidents together with the UK prime minister made plain, they do not envisage any future of Libya, in which Gaddafi still plays a political or leading role. I think, that the United States in particularly, but also France and Britain, could be willing to support the international mediation effort on the condition Gaddafi steps down. So the problem is how do you convince Gaddafi to do that? You have to convince him by the combination of elements: by exerting military force, by making the message that the coalition has a plan for the future for Libya, and this plan is a plan of national reconciliation, a process bringing together the rebels, the tribes and whoever is still loyal to Gaddafi, - but not to Gaddafi formally, that is the point. You have to continue to weaken the regime solidity by bribing key figures within the regime, by giving certain guarantees, particularly, that the International Criminal Court would not reach all of them. And finally you also have to talk to Gaddafi and prepare a sort of next strategy for him, a sort of exile somewhere, where the International Criminal Court would have a hard time to reach him and his family. Perhaps to persuade this objective for the coalition would be to support this goal openly and publicly, to aim at creating the conditions for political mediation.

Perhaps another good thing to ensure this political mediation would be to start a process under the aegis of the United Nations. Another good point would be to involve the African Union as a part of the mediating team within rebels and Gaddafi’s supporters. Of course, it is not certain, that this strategy will succeed, but, considering all the problems related to the other options, that of arming the rebels, that of intensifying the air strikes, that of putting troops on the ground, to me it seems more usable and less risky.

[Source: Kudashkina Ekaterina, The Voice of Russia, 22Apr11]

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Libya War
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