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Un-strategic Victory in Libya

Commentary, 31 May 2011
Middle East and North Africa
Operational success in Libya appears to be close for anti-Qadhafi rebels and their international military backers. But victory will bring the NATO powers little direct strategic benefit. Grateful for success, we should nevertheless be careful how we interpret it and understand the limitations of success for the West and the wider policy implications for the Middle East.

Operational success in Libya appears to be close for anti-Qadhafi rebels and their international military backers.  But victory will bring the NATO powers little direct strategic benefit. Grateful for success, we should nevertheless  be careful how we interpret it  and understand the limitations of success  for the West and the wider policy implications  for the Middle East.

 By Michael Clarke, Director-General, RUSI

[This article was updated with new information on 1 June 2011, see bold]

The wheel is turning in Libya and the NATO-led coalition is on the verge of success. The anti-Qadhafi rebels may not be able to anticipate their own success so soon, but the external powers now have a good chance in a matter of weeks to fulfil the obligations they undertook under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 - to protect civilians from Qadhafi's forces - which has come to mean removing the Qadhafi dynasty from power.

When it happens, we should be grateful for a successful mission. But we should also be careful how we interpret success and understand what it does, and does not, mean.

Approaching operational success

Operational success appears to be close because of the convergence of a number of factors. In the military sphere, lifting the siege of Misrata was a critical point. Rebel forces in the city resisted a fierce assault and then advanced to take defended ground - not just abandoned space as in the helter-skelter advances and retreats of two months ago. Qadhafi's forces desperately wanted to prevent Misrata becoming a rebel bridgehead to the west of Sirt and only 70 miles or so from the capital. But they failed to take it, despite vicious and indiscriminate violence against its population, and now that bridgehead is expanding. A rebel offensive around Zlitan, west of Misrata, looks likely to begin within days - bolstered by NATO air attacks on government forces' armour and artillery. Further east, the rebels have established a secure perimeter around Aydabiya and are preparing to move westwards towards Brega and then push on to re-take the oil port at Ras Lanuf. These offensives may or may not succeed but they show that the rebels are now better organised and cannot be swatted away by a small force of Qadhafi's troops and armour.

More critically, these offensives demonstrate how stretched Qadhafi's own forces now are. He has two westward offensives to contend with from Misrata and Aydabiya, ongoing battles in towns from Wasin to Zintan and Yafran in a belt to the south-west of Tripoli and fighting in Mizdah due south; fighting on the Libyan side of the Tunisian border, and NATO air attacks that constantly degrade his command and control system and effectively cut his forces off into isolated battles. Anecdotal evidence from captured government soldiers suggests that a lot of semi-trained young men have found themselves fighting in confused isolation. Qadhafi still has some thousands of African mercenaries doing the fighting outside Tripoli, but no mercenaries willingly die for a cause or a person; when a front collapses they make their own decisions and tend to disappear. Significantly, Qadhafi is believed to have withdrawn his best and most loyal troops back to Tripoli, either for a spirited stand against rebel forces or, more likely, to deal with an anticipated uprising in the city.

NATO's military campaign is also overtly political; to bring the conflict home to the residents of Tripoli and the elite around the Qadhafi family by bombing his governmental military machine, and by forcing fuel rationing and key shortages. The intention is to disrupt the military machine; but also to disrupt the normal life of the city so as to persuade the population that this really is a war and that Qadhafi has the world ranged against him. The speed at which this may be working is uncertain. Intelligence agencies think they see increased tension throughout the city. Shootings at checkpoints have occurred, rebel flags are seen at certain moments. There are sporadic demonstrations of defiance but nothing coherent. It is not clear what the tipping point might be, but it seems a good bet that there will be one, fairly soon.

On 20 February when the uprising in Tripoli began, the streets of the capital were thronged with anti-government protesters. They have since been cow-towed into a frightened submission by the all-present security services and it is not clear what it would take to give the protesters renewed belief that they can succeed. It is evident that the east of the city is not under Qadhafi family influence but we simply do not know how strong or widespread another uprising might be. Judging by the events of late February, however, it would certainly not be trivial.

Meanwhile, defections from the Qadhafi camp continue; involving politicians (such as ex-foreign minister Moussa Koussa, or former prime minister and oil minister Shokri Ghanem), senior military personnel (five generals within the last two days) and even family members (including Qadhafi's wife Safia and his daughter, Aisha). Such headline defections have tended to disguise a steady drift of lower level officials and diplomats away from the regime that have left it broken-backed as an international actor and severely constrained to administer normal domestic business.  African Union attempts at mediation by President Zuma of South Africa have failed twice; first because Qadhafi would not agree to go as a precondition, and now because the rebels would not agree to a ceasefire as a precondition - a telling indication of their growing confidence.

Two versions of political success are now possible; one that rebel victories in other parts of the country stimulate popular uprisings in Tripoli which remove the Qadhafi family in the way the Mubarak dynasty was ousted from Egypt. There might, of course, also be a more violent and unpleasant version of this option. The other version is that those around Qadhafi see there is no future for the dynasty and help arrange a negotiated exit for the Colonel and his powerful sons. The non-family members of Tripoli's ruling clique can then take their chances with whatever comes next; a fraught choice for them but better than the alternative. The NATO-led coalition would count itself successful if Qadhafi's removal was negotiated. It would still be a job done in terms of the UN resolution.

Libya as a strategic distraction

All this is now in the realms of the probable, sometime soon. But how important will this success be? It is certainly better than the alternative of failure. On the other hand, it will not be a strategic success in any direct sense. Certainly, there will be a prestige benefit for the NATO allies, particularly Britain and France - and their leaders - in seeing the mission through in the face of many doubts. Few dispute that swift allied air intervention after 17 March prevented a civilian massacre in Benghazi. All this may translate into greater economic and commercial opportunities in a post-Qadhafi Libya. It may point the way for a new version of the transatlantic bargain within NATO between the US and the European allies. Though it was a close thing for European airpower resources to stretch to an operation like this when the US pulled out of the combat role, they will nevertheless have been seen to make good on the commitment. That might be an important signal for Britain and France to send to the doubters in Washington.

All this would constitute at best, an indirect strategic benefit. The fact is that the future of Libya is not strategically very important to the Europeans in general, still less to Britain in particular. The growing chaos in Syria or Yemen, the simmering tensions in Bahrain, the fate of Egypt's fledgling democracy; all are more strategically important to Britain than anything that happens in Tripoli. The future of these countries will weigh in the stability or chaos that prevails in the Middle East as a whole for the coming era. Their fates are linked at many points. The most notable aspect of north African security, however, is how little connection there is between neighbouring countries and how relatively isolated their societies are from one another.

The Libyan operation has represented an un-strategic initiative, undertaken for humanitarian reasons, where military intervention was feasible and had the chance of being effective. The situations in Syria, Yemen or Bahrain represent a completely different political calculus where Western countries can do very little in the near-term to shape the 'Arab Spring', and certainly not in military terms, however much it may be in their strategic interests to do so. The most effective action for Western countries will be in helping new governments to stabilise their public finances and invest in private sector jobs for their burgeoning youth. The immediate economic needs of Egypt - far and away the most important country in the 'Arab Spring' so far - already dwarf the resources likely to be available. The interim Egyptian government insists it needs at least $8 billion for a major social housing scheme that would get its economy moving; the European Union discusses aid of around half a billion euros as its maximum response to Egypt. These are the sort of mis-matches on which long-term strategic advantage will turn in the 'Arab Spring'.

There will be a natural urge to follow-up any military success in Libya with a relationship that can be beneficial both to the Europeans and Americans and to a new Libyan government. Reasonable as this is, it will not go far to addressing any of the bigger strategic questions the Europeans face in the greater Middle East and there is always a danger it will be a distraction from the more important issues.

The Iraq war of 2003 was regarded as an example of 'catastrophic success'; a military campaign that left no time to think properly about the consequences. The Libya operation is hardly on the same scale, but when its success makes for gratifying headlines in London, Paris and Washington, it will be important to keep the sense of success in proportion, to think long-term and understand the wider strategic equation, of which this is only a small and not very significant part.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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