Libya: three scenarios and settlement

Two months after intervention began, NATO's war in Libya has become an open-ended stalemate. A resolution requires compromises from each side rather than self-righteous declarations of total war. The balance of power does not permit a decisive victory for regime or rebels. A settlement must either reflect this fact, or give way to renewed fighting.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

The 1999 Kosovo War, in which NATO halted and reversed Serbian ethnic cleansing in the breakaway province, lasted seventy-eight days. Unless the Qadhafi regime unexpectedly collapses within two weeks, the 2011 Libyan War will outstrip its predecessor in length.

In Kosovo, a combination of limited aims, fierce and expansive bombing, and Russian diplomatic pressure on Serbia came together to successfully end the conflict. In Libya, a combination of maximalist aims, a cautious military strategy, and limited diplomatic leverage will probably prolong the war into the summer. The conflict has three possible trajectories.

Scenario I: The Saddam Option

The first scenario entails Colonel Qadhafi enduring for a Saddam-length campaign. From 1991 to 2003, Saddam Hussein survived a welter of no-fly zones, sanctions, oil embargoes, and internal rebellions. This, for NATO, is the nightmare: a hardening of the stalemate.

That would compel an open-ended military commitment; for fear of permitting what David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Barack Obama warned would be an 'unconscionable betrayal' of Libyans. If this transpires, London and Paris will be forced to choose between eating their words or committing to a multi-year deployment of aircraft, without full US backing and during shrinking military budgets.

This is what prompted General David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to urge an intensification of airstrikes. He argued that 'if we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Qadhafi clinging to power.' Richards, along with other airpower utopians, ought to have noted that history furnishes absolutely no instance of airpower, in the absence of proficient external or indigenous ground forces, effecting meaningful regime change. The 'airpower victory' is a chimera.

Moreover, Richards' call for strikes at Libya's 'infrastructure' underplays the risks. NATO's bombing campaign has been implemented in exemplary fashion, with remarkably little disruption or harm to civilians. But attacks on dual-use targets, such as fuel dumps, power stations, or key roads would have three malign effects.

First, it would induce widespread anger towards NATO, particularly as civilians' hardship rises in the coming weeks. With Egyptian elections forthcoming and the humanitarian impulse of the war fading from memory, Arab politicians who once backed UN Resolution 1973 would score easy points with their  newly enfranchised electorates (or newly restive citizens) by condemning NATO for exceeding its mandate. Arab League chief Amr Moussa's jibe at airstrikes early in the conflict offered a hint of this.

Second, the inevitable damage to Libya's state capacity, including long-term damage to transport and energy networks, would hobble any post-Qadhafi government seeking to gain the trust of an abandoned citizenry. It is easy to destroy infrastructure, and much harder to re-build it in a post-conflict environment.

Third, it is impossible to imagine NATO's sceptics - Turkey and Germany - sitting quietly by as bombs in urban areas went astray, particularly if Qadhafi enacts his threat to employ human shields for telecommunications sites. Without American leadership - the glue that held the alliance together in Kosovo - it would be a strategic error to push away these peripheral, but participating, members.

Scenario II: Tipping-point

The second scenario, NATO's fervent hope, is that a combination of strangulation, concentrated pressure on Tripoli, and rebel advances will produce a rapid capitulation.

Fuel shortages in Tripoli are biting, the regime has lost the symbolically important city of Misurata, rebel tactics in the east are improving, and battle for the western mountains could sever water and oil pipelines to the regime's single functioning refinery at Zawiya. Libyan GDP has likely contracted by a fifth over 2011, and the rebels will soon gain access to up to $6bn of frozen assets held abroad. In mid-May, Libya's oil minister Shukri Ghanem defected via Tunisia, the first major defection since foreign minister Musa Kusa fled to Britain. Ghanem, as a technocrat returnee, was a symbol of Qadhafi's rehabilitation after 2003, and had served as prime minister.

Does this portend an imminent collapse? The answer, obviously, is no (though it is impossible to say for sure, given the scarcity of information about the regime's underlying resilience). The regime's leadership - Qadhafi, his family, and confidantes like military intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi - have been shaken by NATO's sudden focus on Tripoli over the past three weeks. Their movements have likely adapted, to the point where Colonel Qadhafi might have moved into the hotel hosting foreign journalists.

 But there is no indication that Tripoli is about to rise up. Regime checkpoints are flecked across the city. Even if Qadhafi were to be killed by a NATO attack on a command and control centre, it is entirely possible that one of his sons would act quickly to preserve continuity. And multiple areas remain pro-Gaddadfi.

Over the longer-term, the regime's principal constraint will be preserving communication with military units far from Tripoli as supply lines are severed and command hubs are destroyed. But financial reserves are probably robust - the now-defected governor of Libya's central bank has confirmed that the regime possesses 155 tonnes of gold, whose market value would be roughly $5bn. This is not enough for a multi-year campaign, but it is a useful cushion. Moreover, interdicting flows of fuel via Tunisia will prove impossible to accomplish from the air - and NATO has little leverage over Tunisia and Algeria.

Scenario III: Settlement

A negotiated settlement is the third possibility, but it has become much harder with the ICC's decision to seek arrest warrants for Qadhafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and Abdullah Senussi. The range of countries suitable for exile has narrowed, and only some fraction of those would be eager to host an indicted war criminal with a history of megalomania (though Omar al-Bashir's freedom of movement would give succour to Qadhafi - there is life after the ICC).

More importantly, Saif has been discredited as a viable transitional figure. The opposition, who have made only desultory efforts at negotiation, will be in a stronger position to persuade Western states that there is no legitimate interlocutor. Saif himself will have been pushed closer to his father, and farther from any reformist impulses he may once have possessed.

Nor is there a viable intermediary. Turkey is now distrusted by the regime, and South Africa is distrusted by the opposition. The African Union, long a beneficiary of Qadhafi's largesse, is predisposed to see him remain in power. The truce plan proposed by the African Union in early April involved a parody of a ceasefire which would have afforded little durable protection to Libyan civilians within range of government forces.

The need for compromise

One option is to convoke a negotiating committee comprising Turkish and African Union representatives. It could propose a transitional sequence, rather than a one-step settlement. In the broadest possible terms, this could entail:

(1) a verifiable withdrawal of Qadhafi's forces from urban areas;

(2) a simultaneous and equally verifiable undertaking by the rebels not to advance or seize territory during that period, on pain of the withdrawal of support from the TNC;

(3) a face-saving series of steps in which Qadhafi hands power to a son, who in turn hands power to a regime insider, who in turn establishes an interim unity government with loyalist representation;

(4) an amnesty period for senior regime figures;

(5) internal exile for Qadhafi and his sons or, failing that, the promise of safe passage and quiet diplomatic undertakings to protect him from the ICC's warrant;

(6) the TNC's assumption of leadership of the interim government, after another face-saving period, but with guarantees of interim representation of pro-Qadhafi territories (such as the town of Sirte).

At each of these points, NATO would reserve the right to enforce UN Resolution 1973 and re-apply pressure on the regime, or any forces that appear to threaten the ceasefire. There is no guarantee that Qadhaf will be interested in, or will not exploit, this sequence; his past behaviour indicates a willingness to declare illusory ceasefires. Moreover, there is no doubt that the TNC is composed of courageous, idealistic, competent individuals with a commitment to a democratic Libya. Moral superiority lies with the opposition, despite its own serious transgressions of the laws of war.

But this is an armed conflict, and its resolution requires compromises from each side rather than self-righteous declarations of total war. The balance of power (including the lukewarm Arab support for NATO) does not permit a decisive victory for either side, and a settlement must either reflect this fact, or give way to renewed fighting

At the same time, NATO must make post-conflict planning a priority. This does not mean an occupation force, but it does require thinking through how a successor government could ensure law and order in Tripoli with effective and law-abiding police forces, and, in the longer-term, re-build an inclusive Libyan state. In the meantime, 'bomb harder' is not an appealing substitute strategy.


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board

View profile

Explore our related content