When the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, called a ceasefire last Friday, only hours after the UN Security Council voted in favour of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, it seemed for a brief moment as though Gaddafi’s campaign against his own people had been brought to a halt. This unforeseen move by the Libyan government caused much speculation as to whether this was merely a time-buying bluff, a genuine fear of imminent attack, or evidence of internal divisions in the regime. Within hours it became clear that far from observing the ceasefire, Gaddafi’s forces were not merely continuing their assault on the rebels holed up in the western city of Misurata, but were also making a concerted advance on Benghazi. Thus, late Saturday afternoon, on the back of swift preparations, the no-fly zone entered its operational phase and operation Odyssey Dawn, the largest military intervention in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq almost exactly eight years ago, was underway. Rarely has there been such a swift move from resolution to action.
Resolution #1973 gives wide scope for action against Gaddafi’s forces. After a strongly condemnatory preamble, paragraph 4, concerning the protection of civilians, “Authorizes Member States… to take all necessary measures (my italics) … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack…while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” With its expressed desire to protect civilians “in places exposed to shelling”, the resolution, in effect, has authorised attacks not merely against Gaddafi’s air force and air defences, but also against ground forces. Malcolm Shaw, professor of international law at the University of Leicester, said the resolution gave “the broadest powers for intervention” since the UN resolution in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Whilst the US was for a long time keen to avoid intervention, Britain and France have been forthright in calling for action. More cynical observers have questioned the motivation behind British and French determination to intervene, whilst others have argued it is as much an effort to make up for their reluctance and blundering at the start of the “Arab Spring.” The French initially offered riot police to the now-overthrown Tunisian regime. David Cameron was heavily criticised for attending an arms trade fair in Abu Dhabi, and stung by accusations that his response to the evacuation of British nationals from Libya was too slow.
The strong nature of the resolution is in part due to a very recent hardening of American lines on this matter. The U.S. Secretary of State called the decision by the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone a “game changer.” More recently, the United States has further clarified their demands from the Libyan government and armed forces, with President Obama stating that Colonel Gaddafi must not only observe a ceasefire and stop his troops from advancing further, but also restore water, electricity and gas supplies to the rebel cities of Misurata and Ajdabiyah, restore communications, and allow the passage of humanitarian aid. Terms which Obama emphasised were “not negotiable.”
Colonel Gaddafi’s bellicose rhetoric suggests he is unlikely to comply with these requests. “If the world is crazy, we will be crazy too,” he said, threatening attacks across the Mediterranean. “Libya is not yours…The security council resolution is invalid,” he wrote in an open letter to David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ban Ki-Moon. “You will regret it if you dare to intervene in our country.” Despite his earlier railing against Al Qaeda, Gaddafi has begun to play the Islamic card, calling the intervening powers “Crusaders.” It appears that no one, either in or out of the Arab world, is buying it.
Whilst the resolution does not call for the removal of Gaddafi, there is broad agreement inside and outside of the coalition that his removal from power is essential to achieve a conclusion to the Libyan crisis. And whilst the resolution explicitly omits the use of an “occupation force”, many commentators have noted that even this wording is ambiguous and that it might not rule out ground attacks by special forces. What has been described as a “multi-phase operation” will likely continue until compliance is achieved or another solution is found.
Despite hopes across the board for a swift conclusion, the outcome of this operation is still very uncertain. Will the air campaign be sufficient to sway those forces loyal to Gaddafi either to flee or switch sides? Will revolt come from inside the regime? Will the people return to the streets? Even if a ceasefire were to be observed, it is unlikely that either Gaddafi or the rebel council would accept any power-sharing arrangements. Gaddafi has promised “a long war with no limits,” whether or not he can sustain it remains to be seen.
Despite all appearances, and despite Libya’s tribal nature, this “civil war” lacks the ferocity of hatred seen in previous conflicts such as those in the Balkans. The people are essentially all Sunni Muslims and the state has maintained a strong national identity for more than 70 years. We can only hope that if a prolonged conflict ensues it will not create deep and irreparable divisions in Libyan society.
It is often said of a film that the landscape is the real star. In Libya, the landscape has done and will continue to prove pivotal. With the vast bulk of the country’s population living in cities stretched along the Mediterranean seaboard, linked by long, open highways, the terrain of northern Libya has until now played into Gaddafi’s hands. Unlike the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, the flat, dry desert and scrub does not lend itself to guerrilla warfare and the absence of any rebel air-cover has made it easy for Gaddafi to move up tanks and artillery and to transport men. Outnumbered and subject to far superior firepower, the rebels could only retreat to their towns where their inability to control the hinterland made them vulnerable to siege tactics, such as cutting off supplies of water and electricity.
The lethal air power and missile assault brought to bear by the coalition forces has made Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry extremely vulnerable. It is likely for this reason that his tanks tried, unsuccessfully, to push their way into Benghazi, not only in an attempt to capture the town swiftly, but also to make them harder to target for fear of civilian deaths. The NATO intervention in Kosovo, initially conducted against Serbian airpower, was constrained in its ability to operate against ground units, with each target requiring approval by all nineteen member states. No such constraints exist in the Libyan context and, indeed, the first strike of the military intervention was against Gaddafi’s tanks as they encroached on Benghazi. Having failed in his initial assault, in part due to French airstrikes against his armour, Gaddafi’s supply lines are now stretched and subject to air attack.
Given the nature of the terrain, the conflict could well bog down into stalemate with opposing sides bunkered down in their respective strongholds, unable to move in the open either through fear of air-strikes, or lack of capability. As the conflict centres more around urban areas, accurate intelligence will be essential to avoid civilian deaths and maintain goodwill for the coalition forces. Yet time will ultimately be against Gaddafi, with the long-term prospect of being a pariah state, encased in sanctions and blockaded by air and sea, no doubt playing on the minds both of citizens, soldiers and Libyan government officials. Ideally, the solution will now come from within. Whatever the case, we can only hope that the wounds this war will leave can quickly heal.
This article was first published in New Matilda on March 21, 2011.