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The back-and-forth nature of the Libyan conflict thus far underlines the need for external actors to facilitate a decisive change of fortune
By Michael Clarke for RUSI.org
The military situation along the thousand kilometres of Libyan coastline is a good demonstration of the promise and the pitfalls of using external military power in someone else's fight. The promise is evident. Coalition military strikes on Qadhafi's forces have been dramatic and very accurate. After more than a week of constant air strikes, there are still no confirmed reports of civilian casualties [UPDATE: since this article was published on 31 March, fatalities have been reported]; while most of his armour and artillery, although still partly relevant to the battle, is largely immobile. When Qadhafi's armoured vehicles have been attacked, the troops have abandoned them and effectively disintegrated as formed units, to reform somewhere else further west along the highway. Coalition air power has undoubtedly changed the balance on the ground in a spectacular way after the threat last week that Benghazi might fall to Qadhafi's troops. As the relatively small number of the regime's armoured and mechanised infantry units disintegrated, the rebels made equally spectacular advances along the road west towards Sirte. They over-reached themselves, a counter-offensive began, and a headlong flight back eastwards has been the result.
By forcing the disintegration of Qadhafi's formed units, the coalition air campaign has reduced both sides to fighting essentially as irregulars with small arms and a few elements of armour and artillery (or in the rebels' case, rockets). The total numbers involved along the highway battles are small; a few thousand fighters at most, with no more than a few hundreds coming into battle contact. Qadhafi's forces still have something like a 10 to 1 advantage in heavy weapons but allied airpower has largely neutralised that. It is evident that Qadhafi's forces certainly have Russian T 72 battle tanks inside Misrata, but it that those tanks cannot come out into the open for fear of being attacked from the air. Qadhafi's huge ammunition dump complex in the desert at Sebha has been largely destroyed. There are numerous Scud missiles still technically available to him, but their command and control has been hit and to use them they have to be brought within range of rebel towns and cities; and if Qadhafi's forces move them, they will almost certainly lose them to air attack. As a fight now between irregular forces on both sides, albeit with one side being much better trained, it is not surprising that it flows up and down the highway as a result of skirmishes or relatively light engagements. Some units of Qadhafi's forces have tried organised outflanking movements to the south of the coastal highway, but these have been easily countered and seem not to have been major manoeuvres. It is in the nature of the Libyan terrain that advances and retreats cover many kilometres, as any veteran of the 8th Army or the Afrika Corps in 1941 would confirm. What is different here, so far, is the absence of any decisive battle. For those near the front line, any exchange of fire feels pretty fierce. But while there is undoubtedly a vicious struggle going on inside Misrata for total control of the city, the helter-skelter campaign back and forth along the coast appears to be a series of engagements, bluffs and swift clashes between small and very brittle forces. As it stands, neither Tripoli nor Benghazi is likely to fall to the power of either of these forces.
Turning Defection into Defeat
Herein lies the main pitfall of external military intervention. It is evident that coalition military force can create a more level playing-field between the rebels and Qadhafi's forces, but it cannot in itself dictate what the outcome of the game will be.
In essence, the air campaign has brought a certain amount of time - but only a certain amount - for a political tipping-point to be reached, one which may peel away the support Colonel Qadhafi still enjoys throughout most of Tripoli and around Sirte. Intelligence agencies in Western countries have undoubtedly been working hard to persuade those close to Qadhafi to desert him before it is too late, presumably with guarantees for their own safety and that of their families. The defection of Moussa Koussa, the former Foreign Minister to the Colonel, is an important scalp in this respect, and may send signals to others in Tripoli that the tipping point is approaching.
What more, however, could be expected of military action in bringing about such a tipping point? The no-fly zone and concurrent air campaign look set to continue, at least for several days, but are not likely to be any more decisive for the time being. More important would be the ability of allies to help rebel forces with some of the key enablers for their campaign. These would include communication assets and some help in organisation. Supplies of arms to the rebels, notwithstanding the legal niceties of breaching the current UN Arms Embargo under Security Council Resolution 1970, are unlikely to make a significant difference in the time available for a successful campaign.
Organisation, strategy and some specialist help in weakening or confusing Qadhafi's own forces are more likely to have a decisive effect. It is reported that the United States has already deployed A-10 tank buster aircraft and, more controversially, AC 130s gunships to assist the rebels. Air strikes to prevent civilian targeting by tanks and artillery may be regarded as one thing, but A-10s and AC-130s are unambiguously 'battlefield weapons' and may prove to be divisive among an international coalition that is already feeling queasy about the turn of events. The same might apply to any appearance on the battlefield of significant numbers of Western 'contractors' or security companies, who will be seen as thinly disguised Western mercenaries.
Ultimately, the coalition has to face the fact that its interpretation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 is likely to seem increasingly controversial the longer this campaign continues. Furthermore, extended engagement would mean that the main actors (and, in particular, the US, UK and France) would be perceived as pushing against the very limits of what the Resolution seems to have authorised. If covert military assistance is to make a difference to this battle of irregulars on the ground, then it will have to be decisive and quick. Otherwise it, too, becomes part of the problem, and will be perceived as an illegitimate intervention in a civil war, rather than the logical extension of an international desire to protect civilian lives.