There has been much debate about the pros and cons of intervention in Libya, particularly around the question of imposing a no-fly zone. Understandably, it is difficult to achieve consensus on such important decisions and the international community is right to question both the merits and possible dangers of intervention. One thing, however, on which there appears to be a very broad consensus is that Gaddafi must cease military action against his own people and step down. He has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation council. The rebels are now in a very tenuous position and sure to lose if unassisted. They have admitted they lack the firepower to repel Gaddafi’s assault. So what on earth are we waiting for?
Despite what was taking place in Egypt and Tunisia and across the region, Gaddafi appears to have been caught off guard by the scale of the Libyan uprising and the speed and intensity with which it spread. For a man who has never trusted his own army and neglected it as a consequence, there was a difficult period in which Gaddafi could not take robust action, beyond sicking his security forces on protesters, because he simply did not trust the integrity of his defence force.
This situation has now changed in Gaddafi’s favour. It would appear that those who intended to defect have already done so, and either through fear of reprisal, handouts of stashed petro-dollars, gullibility in the face of propaganda, and even genuine loyalty, likely more tribal than personal, much of the army has decided to stay with Gaddafi.
Now, considerably more confident in the loyalty of his forces, Gaddafi has begun to deploy them in far more robust actions. The rebels have been driven from Ras Lanuf and now Brega, and their situation is worsening rapidly as Gaddafi’s advance gathers momentum. Despite their material, organisational and, likely, morale problems, the Libyan Army is still a far more effective fighting force than the ad-hoc army of the rebels. This advance may slow as they approach the city of Benghazi where rebel defences will be more concentrated, but should Benghazi come under siege, as it no doubt will, there is potential for terrific loss of life.
There is still much uncertainty about the balance of forces and the quality of the Libyan Army’s equipment has come into question. Long years of embargo and, in some cases, deliberate neglect, has ensured that much of the army’s materiel is not serviceable. This has also been compounded by the diversity of equipment deployed by the army; purchased from a variety of different manufacturers and with varying degrees of antiquity, it has been difficult to secure spare parts for repairs or upgrades. Since the lifting of the embargo in 2004, the European Union, spearheaded by Italy, has been Libya’s largest arms exporter, selling an estimated total of more than 800 million Euros worth of contracts. This has mostly consisted of small arms, missiles, electronic equipment, ammunition and fuses and military planes, along with crowd control equipment such as tear gas. Much of the army’s heavier equipment, however, is relatively ancient, consisting of Russian T55s, T62s and the considerably more effective T72s. The army has around one thousand BMP-1, armoured personnel carriers, over two thousand pieces of artillery, including 160 modern VCA Palmaria 155mm mobile howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, heavy and light machine guns, various types of rocket-propelled grenades, surface to air missiles, recoilless rifles, mortars. The air force consists of around 119 Russian MiG 23s, 25-odd MiG 21s and 39 Sukhoi 22 assault planes, 83 helicopters, including 37 Mil Mi-24 Hind assault helicopters.
This is just to name some of the military’s capability, and it must be stressed that this is on paper. No one is certain as to how much of this equipment is genuinely serviceable, just as no one is certain how much equipment has fallen into rebel hands, nor exactly how many of the army’s estimated 45000 soldiers have defected. The east is home to two of Libya’s seven military regions, containing several army bases and four out of the country’s seven air force bases. In a war such as this, heavy weapons will be significant, but perhaps more significant will be smaller-scale anti-personnel weaponry such as mortars, grenades, light and heavy machine guns, and anti-tank weaponry. A tank can be knocked out with a recoilless rifle or a molotov cocktail and they are vulnerable in urban areas, but they are still devastating against infantry and vehicles. If the rebels lack heavy equipment, then their best strategy must be to dig in and fortify the towns and immediate hinterland, not to combat the Libyan army in the field, where they will also suffer for total lack of air cover. The initial enthusiasm with which the rebels rushed west, a gamble they had to take, now seems decidedly naive; they are significantly under-gunned, overstretched and lack coordination. They must concentrate their forces for a concerted defensive effort. Still, all they can hope to do is hold out until help arrives.
The time to act is now. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has backed the imposition of a no-fly zone and has declared Gaddafi’s regime illegitimate. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, has stated he wants a no-fly zone over Libya, and wants the League to take a lead role in its imposition. These are significant developments considering the traditional reluctance of countries in the region to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. It is now not only the West who has condemned Gaddafi, but the Middle East, broadly speaking. NATO has been waiting for regional support before making a stronger case to the UN Security Council, and they now have it. This will perhaps be more difficult still, considering the general unwillingness of China and Russia to sanction intervention. In such a case, is a new resolution really necessary?
Despite the questionable legitimacy of acting outside of United Nations authority, the situation is sufficiently desperate to warrant it. But what sort of action? There is no room for semantic niceties here; the imposition of a no-fly zone in effect constitutes military intervention as it would require action against the Libyan forces, including scrambling to intercept fighters, transport planes and helicopters and targeting anti-aircraft weapons. If a no-fly zone receives approval, why not approve strategic, targeted strikes against Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery, transport vehicles and ammunition depots? Why not commit to equipping and arming the rebels? It brings to mind the famous quote of George Bernard-Shaw: “We have established what you are, madam. We are now merely haggling over the price.” In for a penny, in for a pound.
The real question, of course, is who will take action? NATO? With all the risks of American involvement? If the region supports more robust action, then why not have a regional response? Turkey won’t have a bar of it and no one seems willing to commit to putting troops on the ground, yet the Egyptian army, in spite of its current and not insignificant pre-occupations, could play a very important role here. They have the largest and most sophisticated force in the region, being able to call upon just under a million personnel and almost four thousand tanks, including a thousand M1 Abrams tanks, modified to the most modern M1A2 SEP Standard. This alongside countless other armoured vehicles including tank destroyers, personnel carriers and mobile artillery. The Egyptian air force boasts 220 F16 fighter-bombers amongst a wide array of Russian and French-made aircraft. A quick and ruthless strike against Gaddafi’s military hardware could well be sufficient to encourage his forces to turn against him. A ground incursion would be far more complicated, tactically and politically, but faced by well-trained and far-better equipped Egyptian forces, the wavering Libyan forces might be encouraged to defect. Is it unreasonably romantic, bearing in mind the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest that strong action by Egypt might not only succeed, but ultimately bring the two nations closer together, as well as give the Egyptian military a heroic finale as they retire from public life?
Action by Egypt, or anyone, for that matter, would be fraught with dangers. The risks of becoming involved in a situation that could prove very stubborn are many. Apart from the cost and political consequences, invasion by a foreign power could be misconstrued as opportunistic and become a vehicle for regime propaganda. One is minded of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia in 1978. Also seeking to remove a repressive regime and, supporting more moderate separatists, the Vietnamese army made short work of Pol Pot’s regime, capturing the capital Phnom Penh in just two weeks. The upshot of this by no means entirely altruistic action, however, was a Vietnamese military presence in Cambodia for the following ten years. No external power would find such a scenario desirable in Libya’s case.
Still, something must be done and the time to act is now. Not “now” tomorrow or “now” next week, but now, today, this very hour. Gaddafi’s forces are encircling Misrata in the west and have driven the rebels from Brega in the east. The rebels are ill-equipped and many do not have any professional combat training. Their equipment is inferior and their ammunition is limited. The only advantage they have is their unquestionable determination and the rightness of their cause. We cannot forget that this began as a peaceful demonstration. It was Gaddafi who used violence, Gaddafi who fired the first shots against his own people. The international community, the Arab League and the GCC have shown rare consensus in condemning Gaddafi’s actions; sanctions have been imposed and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has initiated an investigation for crimes against humanity. In a world of uncertain truths and morality, largely run by hypocrites, has there been a more clear-cut scenario in recent times, in the time since Kosovo?
A no-fly zone is nowhere near enough. Gaddafi’s successes have not come through air power, but through increasingly relentless ground assault. Indeed, the air force has appeared suspiciously incompetent when it comes to hitting targets, prompting the question that these potentially sympathetic pilots are missing deliberately. Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, recently said that we cannot allow another Guernica to take place, referring to the bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War. In truth, we cannot allow another Spanish Civil War to happen.
What the rebels have begun can neither be undone nor stopped. The scale of the initial unrest, even inside Gaddafi’s loyal strongholds, made it clear how much the Libyan people want a democratic process and an end to dictatorship. How many people will die in the fighting if it is allowed to continue? How many people will be murdered in the aftermath if we allow the rebels to be defeated? And they will be defeated, given time. Unless further major defections take place, Gaddafi’s superior numbers, tanks and artillery will grind the rebel forces down, more quickly than most expect. What, do we imagine, will the aftermath be? A Libya led by a threatened warlord, encased in hard sanctions, reprisals and detentions, the people deeply distrustful of each other; growing bitterness and disorder, a general hardening of lines. Will the EU, America or anyone for that matter, seek to rehabilitate Gaddafi one last time? It is, quite simply, inhumane to take the risk of inaction. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague said, on BBC Radio: “If Gaddafi went on to… dominate much of the country, well this would be a long nightmare for the Libyan people and this would be a pariah state for some time to come.”
The world must now follow France in recognising the rebel Council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of Libya and act quickly to make them so. The Council too must organise itself more centrally and effectively, mirroring important portfolios. With an eye to the future, the rebels must also guarantee not to undertake reprisals against Gaddafi loyalists if they are ultimately successful. An amnesty for foreign mercenaries will also be necessary to avoid further chaos and bloodshed. It will be difficult, given the strength of feeling, but if they hope to form a new, democratic Libya, they must avoid actions that will entrench divisions. Despite all appearances, and despite Libya’s tribal nature, this “civil war” lacks the ferocity of hatred seen in the Balkans. The Libyan people can be brought together ultimately, provided there is sufficient oversight to ensure fairness and equality of opportunity, and the distribution of wealth and power. If the world does not step in, countless more people will die. It’s an ugly and brutal expression, but what is needed in Libya now is a display of shock and awe to halt Gaddafi’s advance and buy the rebels time. It’s time to go in and go in hard.