By Riad Kahwaji
The prolonged military operation in Libya is starting to have its toll on the image and status of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and is increasing the chances of Libya breaking up or turning into a safe-haven to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. When NATO stepped forward last March to volunteer to lead the operations in imposing a no-fly zone and protecting civilians in Libya in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, most people in the region thought the forces of Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar Gaddafi would be defeated in a matter of few weeks. But two months on, the campaign against Gaddafi seems far from over with the no-fly zone being breached every now and then and civilians continue to be slaughtered by Libyan forces loyal to the regime. Many officials and analysts in the Middle East region watch with great dismay what they had regarded as the strongest military alliance in the West run a slow and sloppy operation against a poorly trained army of thugs and mercenaries equipped with aging and obsolete weapons.
If NATO continues with this poor performance and fumbles this mission, it will throw away over 50 years of work, said a senior NATO military official who asked not to be named. “All NATO efforts to build its image and expand its strategic relations with Arab and Middle Eastern countries have been undermined by the poorly-implemented Libya operations,” he added. While only ten of NATO’s 26 member states are actually taking part in the Libya campaign, the target list and operational plans must be approved by all member states. Most European countries opted to stay out of the fight for either domestic political reasons related to general elections or due to economic difficulties. Two Arab countries, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, contributed jetfighters to the operations, but they soon discovered it was not easy to operate in a very controlled environment where their jets must be escorted by NATO warplanes every time they have to go up in the Libyan airspace, in order to accommodate the Alliance’s internal rules.
NATO has been trying for the past few years to convince Arab Gulf States to sign up to the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), by emphasizing two main lines: First, NATO is not equivalent to the United States or controlled by Washington. Second, having 26 members means neither U.S. nor another European country would dictate policies or have a monopoly on security decisions. However, the Libya operation has proved to people in the region that without the United States, NATO military capabilities are very modest and unreliable. It also proved that getting 26 members to agree on one thing is never easy, and thus NATO might not be such an effective partner and ally to have. “With this performance by NATO, I seriously doubt we would get few if any Arab Gulf countries to sign up to the ICI or keep it,” said the NATO general.
While the UN Security Council Resolution did not specify an end-game to the military operations, U.S. and some Western leaders have specified the ouster of Gaddafi as the ultimate objective of the campaign. However, with a very little number of warplanes available and few daily airstrikes to support groups or ragtag poorly-armed Libyan rebels, Gaddafi’s forces have thus far managed to stay on and put up a strong fight and stage counter-attacks on various fronts. NATO members have failed to agree on a common strategy forward, with some favoring arming the rebels while others prefer sending in land forces to drive back Gaddafi’s troops and bring this war to a quick end. But the UN Resolution forbids the occupation of Libya and is not clear on arming the rebels. Hence, the Libyan warzone stretches along the coastline from east to west, with some battles south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, leaving large stretches of Libyan territory in the center and southern parts of the country unmanned or controlled by regular forces, which allows possible Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to roam freely and gain access to the large caches of surface-to-air missiles and other weapons in Libyan military depots captured by the rebels. The longer the fight with Gaddafi’s forces the better the opportunities the terrorists would have to entrench themselves and seize the weapons they are after.
The Arab street is very much against Gaddafi, especially with the so-called Arab Spring sweeping the countries of the Middle East. Arab public revolts have brought down regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening regimes in several other states, including Libya. The empowered Arab public opinion is strongly in favor of toppling Gaddafi, a fact reflected by the daily anti-Gaddafi news coverage on pan-Arab news channels like Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. This Arab street will not be merciful or understanding to a NATO failure to oust Gaddafi. Conspiracy theorists, and there are many in the Arab world, are beginning to talk about a plot by the West to prolong the war in order to get control of Libya’s oil and gas resources and get their hands on the billions of dollars in frozen accounts and assets to the Libyan regime in the West. It would be very hard for any analyst or official to convince the Arab street how NATO, which includes the United States, failed to take out Gaddafi after the U.S. alone had succeeded in invading Iraq and defeating a much stronger military than that of Gaddafi’s in just three weeks. The West has to remember that there are new realities on the ground in the Middle East produced by the Arab Spring, and if influential public opinion turns against them, or NATO, for mishandling the Libya operations, they would risk losing more than just the confidence of the Arabs.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA