By B. Raman
“The rebels’ strategy is to push west but this has got off to a halting start, and without further concerted air strikes it is difficult to see how this rag-tag army will ever achieve its aim of unseating Col Gaddafi.” — Ian Pannell, the BBC correspondent in East Libya, in a dispatch of March 21, 2011
Increasing confusion over basic aspects of the Western-led military operations — ostensibly with the authorisation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) — in Libya doesn’t bode well for the achievement of the principal objective of the operation as authorised by the UNSC, namely, the protection of civilians in the areas outside the control of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan despot.
The No Fly Zone was authorised by the UNSC to protect the civilians from air strikes by the Libyan Air Force. States of the Arab League supported the proposal for a No Fly Zone under the impression that it meant patrolling by the planes of the members of the coalition in the Libyan skies in order to immobilise the Libyan Air Force.
The UNSC resolution has been interpreted by the US, the UK and France as authorising not only the immobilisation of the Libyan Air Force, but also its destruction on the ground. Hence, the repeated air and missile strikes for three nights in succession on ground positions in Tripoli, the capital, and other areas under Government control. This destruction, instead of immobilization, is causing large civilian casualties in the areas under the control of the Government. Even if one does not accept the figures of civilian casualties as given out by the Libyan Government, the fact that there have been civilian casualties in the Government-controlled areas cannot be denied. Civilians are being killed in Government-controlled areas in attempts to protect the civilians in the rebel-controlled areas.
The severity of the air strikes —- which is totally disproportionate to the requirements of a No Fly Zone to protect the civilians — has already started causing disquiet in the ruling circles of the Arab world, but not yet amongst the population. There has not yet been any public demonstration against the disproportionate air and missile strikes under the pretext of preparing the ground for effective enforcement of a No Fly Zone. Amr Moussa, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, has been the first to give expression to this disquiet. One could expect others to do so in the days to come if this disproportionate resort to air and missile strikes continues.
The reported destruction by a missile strike of a building near Gaddafi’s place of residence under the pretext that it housed the command and control of Libyan air defence forces has given rise to suspicions that the Western-led coalition has arrogated to itself without the authority of the UNSC the objective of removing Gaddafi through military action. There have been vague answers from Western leaders to the question as to Gaddafi’s removal is one of the objectives of the military action. While the Americans have been somewhat vehement in their denial, the British have not been. While denying that Gaddafi is a direct target, the British do not rule out the possibility of his becoming an indirect victim of the air and missile strikes.
This calculated ambivalence results from Western realization that there is unlikely to be an early end to the military operations so long as Gaddafi continues to be in power in Tripoli. Even if the Libyan Air Force is totally destroyed on the ground, the rag-tag army of the opponents of Gaddafi is not in a position to move by road over a 1000 kms from Benghazi to Tripoli, defeat Gaddafi’s forces and remove him from power unless it is assured of sustained air support. Moreover, it has to pass through areas inhabited by tribes loyal to Gaddafi. Unless their ground fighting capability is degraded, the rebel army could face difficulty in reaching Tripoli. Having degraded Gaddafi’s air capability under the pretext of facilitating the No Fly Zone— which itself was more than what was authorized by the UNSC— the West now faces the prospect of having to mount more air and missile strikes on Gaddafi’s ground troops in order to degrade their fighting capability. This could aggravate the disquiet among the Arab members of the coalition.
If the rebel army does not capture Tripoli in another two or three weeks it is likely to face another adversary en route to Tripoli — the desert storms which could increase in frequency and intensity in the days to come. During the Iraq invasion of 2003, desert storms immobilized some US tanks and slowed down the advance to Baghdad. Fortunately, the desert storms did not last long. If they last long in Libya, not only it could slow down the rebel advance to Tripoli, but it could also hamper air strikes due to poor visibility thereby increasing the reliance on missile strikes which generally cause more civilian casualties than air strikes.
These problems — actual and potential — have been confounded by the lack of convergence over the command and control of the entire operation. Presently, the command and control is being temporarily exercised by the Americans, but President Barack Obama is anxious to erase as rapidly as possible the impression that this is an US-inspired, US-led and US-manipulated military action using the fig-leaf cover of the UNSC resolution. He wants one of the European members of the coalition to take over as quickly as possible the leadership of the command and control. What role should the NATO play in this command and control? Germany, Turkey and the Arab members of the coalition are not comfortable with the idea of a NATO role. The UK and Italy are in favour of it.
If these problems are not sorted out in the coming days and if there is no convergence on what exactly the UNSC resolution means and how to achieve the objectives as laid down by the UNSC resolution, one could find the situation in Libya becoming messier than it is today.