Rescuing the Rebels

Western policymakers may weigh up a number of ways to help the rebels in Libya - what should not be in doubt, however, is their obligation to provide some much-needed assistance.

By Barak Seener for

Rebel fighters run for cover during heavy shelling by loyalist forces near Bin Jawad on 6 March, 2011 - before UN-sanctioned air strikes came to their aid.

In the run-up to and since the passing of UN Resolution 1973, Western powers have insisted that they draw their legitimacy from the Arab League's call for action. While symbolically important, questions can be asked regarding why legitimacy should - or, indeed, whether it even can - be derived from a group of largely autocratic nations, whose regimes by and large hardly recognise the value of universal human rights in their own societies. The legitimacy of moving to protect civilians vulnerable to slaughter is intrinsic. It does not need to be attained by the endless pursuit of consensus, let alone from those who do not embrace those principles.

The Arab League is acting disingenuously by claiming that their criticism of the weekend's military strikes is due to their opposition to the shelling of civilians.[1] Member states appreciated that the broad definition of Resolution 1973's 'protecting civilians and civilian population areas' would entail military strikes against Qadhafi's air defence systems and advances on rebel towns.[2] Furthermore, there have thus far been no independent verifications of the Qadhafi regime's claims of the numbers that have been killed by the strikes.

The UN's doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (elsewhere referred to as 'R2P'), which advocates intervention if leaders are unable or unwilling to prevent humanitarian atrocities, or are complicit in causing them, is an extension of the Western liberal traditions that embraced universal human rights. Representatives of the Arab League are left wanting regarding the satisfactory adoption of these principles, and are suffering a credibility problem as rulers in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are busy suppressing their own opposition. Leaders of the Arab League who claim to be supporting the armed pursuit of these principles abroad will not succeed in duping their own people. Domestic oppositions can see the manner in which their governments are attempting to hedge their bets by applying such double standards - and their discontent will not be assuaged by their rulers' superficially benign foreign policy.

The America-Arab League Axis

The Obama Administration's adoption of 'consensus' - stressing the inclusion of the Arab League -  came at the expense of protecting the civilians, embracing a narrow definition of Resolution 1973 and, in turn, keeping Qadhafi in power. It is not possible to reach a consensus regarding whether troops can be targeted if they are not imminently threatening a town, even if there is every indication that they would do so in the future. Furthermore, it remains a challenge to determine how to respond to Qadhafi's temporary 'tactical pullback' to Tripoli with the rebels advancing after them. Thus consensus undermines a no-fly zone, especially at a time when questions are being raised about what this operation's aim actually is. How long will engagement last? What will it take to confidently declare that Resolution 1973 has been achieved? How can stalemate, or even a civil war, be averted?

The dangers of being pressurised in the name of 'consensus' to follow a narrow definition of Resolution 1973 which expresses 'its determination to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian-populated areas' is that it places the coalition in a purely reactive posture to any troop columns outside towns that pose an imminent threat to civilians. Furthermore, it has leant the no-fly zone an open-ended nature, failing to give it a decisive mission and increasing the likelihood of mission creep.

The pursuit of consensus in place of a demonstration of US leadership has lead to disagreement among NATO allies, with no agreed plan encouraging some countries to take their own unilateral measures within the broad alliance. Diplomatically, such multipolarity reflects the tensions and even bloodshed that marked European powers for centuries. Consensus must reflect legitimacy, not vice versa. This is not proving to be the case: as Robert Gates justified intervention, he conflated consensus with legitimacy. 'The engagement of the Arabs,' said the US Defence Secretary, 'the engagement of the Europeans, the general humanitarian question, was at stake.' Conversely, this approach explains the US's reluctance to intervene in Syria despite the regime's repression of protests. As Hillary Clinton said, 'If there were a coalition of the international community, if there was a passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal, but that is not going to happen because I don't think it is yet clear what will occur, what will unfold [in Syria].' Yet, legitimacy stems from human rights values, not the diplomatic bargaining processes to achieve consensus from multiple states, many of whom do not embrace such values.

Greater effort has been focused on achieving a UN resolution whose cover was translated into a broad and ambiguous mandate. The obsession with consensus has led to confusion as to the aims of the no-fly zone and any military engagements associated with it. President Obama has refused to define the attacks on Libya as a war or to consult with Congress, preventing the emergence of a concise mission statement. More pragmatically, Robert Gates opposes expanding the number of targets. The apex of confusion culminated in NATO's Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declaring contradictory positions: 'I can't imagine the international community and the UN standing idly by if Col Qadhafi continues attacking his people systematically. But I have to say, we do not look for intervention in Libya.'

The Qadhafi Quandry

While Defence Secretary Liam Fox has implied that the direct targeting of Qadhafi might be an option, Chief of the Defence Staff Sir David Richards has said that this would not be authorized by the UN. Both David Cameron and William Hague maintain an ambiguous position on the circumstances that would allow Qadhafi to be targeted.

It is clear that Qadhafi will not leave his position as a result of any negotiations, or because President Obama declares that he 'must go' (albeit without specifying in which manner). As a repressive dictator who has been in power for over four decades - the most enduring regime in the region - Qadhafi will continuously oppose the partition of Libya. The despot has developed the cult of personality and sought to maximize power for himself - and any speculations that he would share power or assume a symbolic position are pure fantasy.

Fissures will develop within the international community, as occurred over the previous Arab League protests despite it fitting into the strict definition of Resolution 1973. The Obama Administration has already sought to reduce its leadership role in the no-fly zone, playing a support-and-assist role (including jamming and intelligence-gathering), placing the onus on Britain and France and hinting at a possible NATO Command and Control-based effort. The US and the UK have already expressed anger at France's launch of the first attack without fully informing them. A stalemate could allow Qadhafi to hold out and wait for the international community's attention to wane. Qadhafi can leverage the African Union's opposition to the no-fly zone, and has already begun to seek diplomatic and military support in sub-Saharan Africa due to his extensive investments in numerous African states.

Qadhafi can also foster tensions within the Arab League by cultivating individual ties with Arab states. Similar to Saudi Arabia coming to Bahrain's aid to suppress uprisings, Syria has come to the aid of Libya. A Libyan military general established a liaison office at the Syrian Naval command at Tartous to organize military supplies for the Libyan army. The Transitional National Council has also expressed fears that a Syrian Ship loaded with weapons has sailed for Tripoli. There are reports that Syrian soldiers are fighting alongside the regime's forces. Omar Hariri, military head of the Council, has expressed concern that Qadhafi has hired Algerian pilots for bombing raids on the rebels. Before the no-fly zone was enforced, there had been repeated flights from Algeria to small airports in Sabha and Surt by C-13- Hercules and Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft that can carry tanks. Anthony Cordesman has described a scenario where 'Libya becomes locked in an internal arms race, seeking arms and aid from the outside, and outside powers compete for influence. This plays out in the midst of a much broader pattern of turmoil in the region, and particularly in Egypt and Tunisia.'[3]

France has held up the agreement that NATO would assume command and control due to their fear that Turkey would veto military operations. France has also been concerned that NATO control would alienate the Arab world. In all participating nations there will be increased domestic condemnation for the open-ended and costly nature of the no-fly zone. In short, the Alliance is very fragile and will rapidly fall apart, ironically due to the very consensus that was geared to bind it together. Parenthetically, the mantra of consensus enabled Iran to pass the threshold of uranium enrichment and, due to the lowest common denominator achieved by the international community, sanctions have been diluted and have not targeted the energy sector - the regime's lifeline.

Force Closure Rather Than Risk Open-Ended Conflict

To avoid the pitfalls of an open-ended no-fly zone, a broader definition of Resolution 1973 must be adopted, one which stresses that protecting civilians entails the strategic targeting and decapitation of the Qadhafi regime. Qadhafi has created a nexus between his survival with his maximisation of power - and, ultimately, resistance. This may even entail a scorched-earth policy of embedding loyalists within towns such as Misrata, changing the nature of the conflict: no longer would the international community be targeting a concentration of troops in the open, but rather diffused loyalists in an urban setting - conventional warfare would have evolved into urban guerrilla warfare. This has already prevented an RAF Tornado mission due to the fears of collateral damage. By adopting human shield tactics, Qadhafi can force the international community to accept the partition of Libya, which he will use as a springboard to attempt to claw back control of areas lost, just as Saddam Hussein did when he attacked Kurdistan.

Factoring in all these eventualities, the Alliance has a number of policy options that it can adopt:

(1) Target the Qadhafi regime, which could lead to an accelerated rate of defections.  So far bombing has been limited to air defences and limited ground positions - and defections have been minimal. A more focused attack strategy on the regime's strongholds may peel away Qadhafi's inner circle.

(2) Follow France and Qatar's example of formally recognising the National Transitional Council. This council has sought to create social cohesion by its representation of members from all towns. Mustafa Abdel Jalil has made explicit his ambition that Libya be integrated into the international community by embracing a democratic form of government with a constitution. The Council also identifies that foreign investment and privatization is contingent upon fostering democratic governance. Contact groups between members of the international community and the Transitional Council would further serve to facilitate this process. In the meantime, such contact groups could co-ordinate rebel attacks. Fostering the Council's development can mitigate a civil war in the aftermath of Qadhafi's exit. No such luxury was offered in Iraq, as its opposition was exiled and lacking any legitimacy.

(3) Offer logistical support to the rebels by, for example, having a limited detachment of Special Forces train the rebels in the use of heavy artillery. This does not - and, indeed, should not - entail mission creep into a more general ground force presence in Libya. On the contrary, it will prevent the need for any such escalation.

(4) Provide communications support to the rebels, enabling them to co-ordinate their attacks. Communications systems can also facilitate co-ordination of precision strikes against pro-Qadhafi forces in the event that they embed themselves, through the use of Tomahawk missiles that can penetrate hardened concrete buildings.

(5) Offer fuel and maintenance support along with access to supplies, making their push towards western Libya sustainable and preventing over-extension.

(6) Supply rebel forces with game-changing weapons such as advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems. There have been reports of some Arab states sending shipments of arms to the rebels. While Resolution 1970 places an arms embargo on Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the case can be made that this relates solely to the Qadhafi regime and not does not cover a geographic unit including the rebels. This reasoning is strengthened in light of Resolution 1973 that advances 'to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of Resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory'. An alternative rationale could be offered by France and Qatar that recognizing the Transitional National Council as an alternative to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, legitimizes their arming. Arms should be channeled via the Transitional Council, further bolstering their legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyans and also ensuring that arms are not diverted to loyalist forces.

(7) Provide the rebels with intelligence on the regime's troop movements and concentration.

(8) Destroy the regime's media outlets, which sow fear and confusion amongst the rebels, as was done when loyalists claimed they would be moving in on Benghazi.

(9) Offer the rebels seed money in order for them to proceed with oil production and lubricate commerce. This is essential for obtaining popular support and loyalty along with buying arms, soldiers and food. Oil exports have declined due to the fighting with the rebels maintaining, losing and re-acquiring oil terminals along the coast. Agoco has sought to fund the opposition. Cordesman notes that Qadhaffi would use petroleum income to punish rebels and 'pick new "winners" and "losers" in terms of foreign contractors and IOCs, and manipulate investments and contracts as political weapons and leverage points. More generally, he may shift funds back into financing international terrorist and extremist movements-if carefully and through various covers-as a means of taking revenge.'[4]


These measures should be taken swiftly, concurrently with striking the regime's air defences, rather than in a sequential and gradual manner that seeks to convince Qadhafi that he must step aside. Such an approach would encourage loyalists to adapt guerrilla warfare tactics, which the no-fly zone is not equipped to deal with. Unfortunately, it appears that the opposite is happening. Early sorties that targeted solely the regime's air defences indicated the graduated approach. Vince Crowley, a Pentagon spokesman for the military's Africa Command, said 'We are moving from the action phase to a patrolling phase. Our aircraft participation has ... plateaued, if not reduced somewhat.'[5]

Faced with the choice of either capitalising on the broad legitimacy granted by Resolution 1973 and swiftly ending Qadhafi's tyrannical rule, or maintaining a narrow remit that ultimately breaks up the Alliance, it is clear which is the preferred option.

Barak Seener is the Middle East Research Fellow at RUSI.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

Main image courtesy of BRQ Network.


[1] 'Arab League Criticizes Libya No Fly Zone Implementation', Voice Of America News, 20 March 2011

[2] Char les Krauthmmer, 'Obama and Libya: The Professor's War', Washington Post, 24 March 2011

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