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Arming the Rebels Is Not the Answer

Commentary, 5 April 2011
Defence Policy, Global Security Issues, International Institutions, Middle East and North Africa
Arming the Libyan rebels in the hope of expediating the ousting of the Qadhafi regime would be at best misguided, at worst detrimental to their cause.

Arming the Libyan rebels in the hope of expediating the ousting of the Qadhafi regime would be at best misguided, at worst detrimental to their cause.

By Paul Smyth for

To see arguments for arming Libyan rebels, click here

Libya Arming Rebels

The international intervention in Libya suffers from a fundamental incoherence: coalition states want to see Qadhafi deposed, but they cannot use their military capabilities to overthrow him. This disconnection between desired aim and available means makes the coalition reliant on an embryonic revolution currently incapable of defeating the regime forces that oppose it. 

Whilst it has been asked whether allied air power has become the rebel's air force, a more pertinent question is whether the rebels can become the coalition's army. As they are currently an inadequate proxy with very little combat utility it is understandable that calls are being made to arm the rebels, but this would be a symbolic policy with no substantial benefit. 

Risks And Difficulties

Supplying weapons to the rebels brings inherent risks. Firstly, differening views on the legality of arms supplies could create divisions within the coalition. If Arab states provide the arms, this danger might be reduced - but not eliminated - as some states have already voiced opposition to arms supplies. Secondly, there would be no allied control over how the weapons were used, weakening the coalition's ability to minimise collateral casualties. The allied mandate for intervening in Libya would be severely undermined if coalition-supplied weapons killed Libyan civilians. Thirdly, the disparate nature of rebel groups raises a concern that weapons might reach unintended recipients. Arms sent to Libya must not appear in other conflicts. 

Beyond the risks associated with arming the rebels are practical difficulties. The rebels seek heavy and long-range weapons to match those used by regime forces. Such weapons require trained users, maintenance and significant logistic support, exacerbating existing supply difficulties. Without essential support these weapons would be under-utilised, less accurate and more susceptible to technical failure. The coalition would not accept poorly trained rebels firing artillery against regime forces near urban areas, so who would conduct the necessary gunnery training, enforce competence standards and ensure they were applied in the field? Similarly, there is little point giving the rebellion tanks and armoured vehicles if they quickly become unserviceable in a harsh desert environment. A decision to arm the rebels must consider training, maintenance and logistic factors, which could scupper the perceived benefits of the policy.

General calls to arm the rebels lack important detail. For instance, what weapons do they really need, those optimised for defensive use or offensive operations? If defensive, under an air shield that targets artillery and tanks threatening population centres, do the rebels need to counter only an infantry threat? If offensive, is manoeuvre or firepower considered more important and is there sufficient logistical support for such weapons? Do they need arms with limited effect, which can be employed immediately, or others of greater capability that would not be available for many weeks?  Also, would NATO-supplied weapons or vehicles be suited to the Libyan desert (e.g. fitted with adequate sand filters), especially in summer temperatures? Calls for arms supplies must not ignore such details or the idea may collapse in implementation.

The rebel's ability to fight is limited less by the weapons at their disposal than by other military deficiencies (e.g. in tactics, leadership and unit cohesion). The same inadequacies would prevent better-armed rebels from conducting effective operations; their many weaknesses stop them from exploiting the potential benefits of being armed by the coalition. Therefore, shouldering the risks and difficulties associated with arming the rebels would be for no material advantage.


Conflict between regime forces and rebel fighters is clearly one-sided. A belief that weapons alone will remove that imbalance is the result of a short-sighted optimism that neglects military realities. Giving the rebels heavy or advanced weaponry may even prove counter-productive. The coalition must not panic. The rebellion is not in peril. Nor is an immediate rebel offensive essential to depose Qadhafi. Rather, the rebellion needs time to consolidate and organise, and it must avoid a precipitous offensive, the failure of which would weaken the revolution. While hoping for a short-term end to the conflict, the coalition must plan with the longer term in view. The revolution in Libya does not need weapons, but an army. The coalition is reducing Qadhafi's military advantages by enforcing a No-Fly Zone, policing an arms embargo and targeting regime forces, but it can also redress the existing imbalance in combat effectiveness by developing the revolutionary forces. Importantly, it could do so without having to arm the rebels.

Paul Smyth was a Tornado navigator in the Royal Air Force. He participated in NFZ duties over Iraq and retired as a wing commander after twenty-five years service. Upon retiring, Paul was head of RUSI's Operational Studies Programme and is now owner of R3I Consulting.

Image courtesy of Manu Brabo

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