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The Feasible Option for Libya

Commentary, 14 March 2011
Global Security Issues, International Institutions, Law and Ethics, Middle East and North Africa
A no-fly zone is mired in political obstacles. Those states with a moral and strategic interest in forestalling a Qadhafi victory ought to step around that diplomatic morass. Assistance to the rebels - even non-lethal and non-tangible - is a feasible and effective option.

A no-fly zone is mired in political obstacles. Those states with a moral and strategic interest in forestalling a Qadhafi victory ought to step around that diplomatic morass. Assistance to the rebels - even non-lethal and non-tangible - is a feasible and effective option.

By Shashank Joshi for

Libya Rebels

History is replete with aborted rebellions - Hungary 1956, Prague 1968, Iraq 1991 and Iran 2009, to name but a few. There are many in Western capitals who do not want Libya 2011 to be appended to that list.

Some - whether animated by a democratic-humanitarian impulse or more realist concerns - have been extraordinarily assertive. David Cameron, in his zeal for a no-fly zone, resembles nothing so much as the Blair of Kosovo, proselytizing for intervention at the end of 1998. France, burned by its various mis-steps in the Maghreb, has recognised the rebel council as Libya's representative and even called for air strikes.

It is clear that many opponents of a no-fly zone, in response to this assertiveness, have exaggerated its risks and dismissed the limited good it may do. General Merril McPeak, a former US Air Force Chief of Staff, has lamented the 'wailing and gnashing of teeth' about the imposition of a NFZ, and observed that he 'can't imagine an easier military problem'.

But it is time to accept that this is now a sideshow, because an important and exacting consensus is developing around the hypothetical criteria for intervention.

Voices that cannot be ignored - Robert Gates, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, William Hague and Hillary Clinton - have demanded that any intervention be both legal and legitimate. In other words, they will not repeat Kosovo 1999 or Iraq 2003. The heavy shadow of Fallujah and Basra, Helmand and Marjah, is cast over their deliberations.

The No-Fly Zone is Grounded

If an intervention must be both legal and legitimate, it must also be non-existent.

Unless Qadhafi performs a highly visible massacre of noncombatants or carpet-bombs urban areas - and he has proved more pragmatic than that - Russia and China will not acquiesce in a Security Council resolution. Though China might abstain, Russia would likely issue a veto. Amongst non-permanent members there are at least two increasingly influential states, India and Brazil, who remain unpersuaded.

The Arab League's support for a no-fly zone is remarkable, but limited. Despite the pleas of the National Libyan Council, the approval of the Gulf Co-operation Council (including Saudi Arabia), and a wide spectrum of pro-interventionist Arab voices, there is simply little appetite from Arab governments for committing their own forces, at a time when these states are trembling from the Tunisian and Egyptian ripples.

And in the highly unlikely event that an intervention meets these stringent criteria for legality and legitimacy, it would take many weeks for the requisite infrastructure to be put into place.

The Strategic Stakes

At the same time, there are now both humanitarian and strategic reasons for Britain and its allies to forestall a Qadhafi victory.

The severest danger arises from the prospect of an embittered Qadhafi crushing the rebels, restoring control over his territory in the long-term, and renewing his past support for terrorist groups. Over the previous ten years, state sponsorship of non-state armed groups has proved one of the most pernicious and irresolvable problems of international security. Examples include Pakistan's support for the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and that of Syria and Iran to Hamas and Hezbollah. Western states and the regional targets of these armed groups have been largely impotent in the face of this strategy.

A secondary danger arises from a protracted civil war that might fleck ungoverned patches across Libyan territory. Despite Qadhafi's delusional invocation of Al Qa'ida's role in the rebellion, there is no imminent threat. Libya's Islamist groups were crushed during the 1990s, and it does a disservice to the pro-democracy opposition to suggest that there is an Islamist undercurrent to their cause.

But it is reported that Al Qa'ida in Iraq's foreign fighters - during Iraq's raging insurgency - included more Libyans per capita than nationals of any other country. Iraq is an example of a nation that had no meaningful connection to international terrorist groups until its institutions dissolved in the years after 2003. Al Qa'ida deftly exploited the chaos and rapidly gained a foothold where none had existed. A rebel victory affords no guarantees of a stable future, but the present stalemate certainly precludes that.

Side-Stepping Diplomacy: Assistance to Rebels

How, then, to reconcile the sound humanitarian and strategic reasons for preventing the rebels' defeat with the political impossibility of a no-fly zone, let alone anything more expansive?

Equipping and financing the rebels is a low-risk, low-cost means of shoring up their crumbling position. Their base of operations in the east is accessible and relatively secure (notwithstanding Britain's bungled SIS-SAS task force last week). Saudi Arabian and Egyptian support might be forthcoming, and the effort would have a far lower profile than fighter aircraft patrols and their supporting paraphernalia.

Arming the opposition carries serious risks. Portable anti-aircraft missiles are liable to slip out of responsible hands and be used against western targets, and small arms proliferation already blights that part of the world. Moreover, the arms embargo on Libya technically applies to the rebels too. Even if other countries followed Frances recognition of the transitional council, this would not necessarily change the legality of arms supplies.

Non-Lethal Support

But bullets are not the only form of assistance.

Communications equipment - both military radios and satellite phones - would benefit the rebels at the tactical and operational levels. It is particularly important that rebels have secure communications channels that cannot be disrupted or compromised by the regime.

Secondly, information is crucial amidst the fog of war. NATO has already initiated 24-hour surveillance flights by AWACS aircraft, and information from those, as well as satellite imagery, could be funneled to the beleaguered opposition. Britain's human intelligence inside Libya is likely thin on the ground, but the slew of air and naval assets perched in the southern Mediterranean ought to provide a stream of intercepted communications. The introduction of JSTARS aircraft - better suited to tracking fine-grained ground-level information - would furnish even higher-quality battlefield intelligence, at minimal risk.

Furthermore, the information war can easily be carried to the regime. Jamming military signals and internet or telephone communications would hamper Qadhafi's forces in their counter-offensive. Ideally, these efforts would sow confusion on the battlefield and blur the view from Tripoli. Blocking state propaganda might also loosen the regime's psychological grip in Tripoli, but this is most useful in concert with the broadcast of a counter-narrative that highlights the regime's abuses and the international condemnation heaped upon its leader.

Past conflicts suggest that rebel groups' weaknesses are rarely firepower or funds, but organisation. In Afghanistan, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance spent years receiving arms from Iran, Russia and India, but was progressively hemmed into patches of territory in the north. As soon as US special forces entered the fray - admittedly, accompanied by air strikes of the sort that are not feasible in Libya - the Taliban militarily collapsed. In Kosovo, special forces from Norway, Britain and the United States had linked up with the anti-Serbia Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as part of the wider humanitarian intervention.

The use of special forces to organise and advise rebels is perhaps the single most important form of assistance that might be rendered to the anti-Qadhafi coalition - indeed, it has almost certainly begun.

Military assistance will be especially important in this conflict, as the opposition continues to lack a unified military command, and does not have the full support of all the defected military units. This lack of military oversight was evident in the overextension of rebels when they pushed westwards past Brega, extending their supply lines and thinning their numbers. Professional officers watched on with concern, unable to marshal the thousands of amateur soldiers into disciplined formations with a coherent strategy.

There are obvious risks associated with this measure, ranging from capture of foreign personnel to the dissemination of military know-how that might fuel a later insurgency against what could become a constitutional Libyan state.

But over the past days, Qadhafi's forces have penetrated Zawiya, pushed rebels back from Ras Lanuf, and unleashed a stream of bombing and artillery raids. The rebels' position is not desperate, but it is precarious. With a no-fly zone mired in political obstacles, and Arab states weary, London and Paris - along with like-minded states - should step around that diplomatic morass and employ more feasible means of turning the tide in Libya.

Main and thumbnail images courtesy of BRQ Network


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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