March 4, 2011
Number 03/11 #02
Today’s Update deals with the international debate over whether outside parties can or should intervene in the conflict in Libya between long-serving eccentric dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels seeking his overthrow.
First up, reviewing the strategic realities of the current conflict is Michael Knights, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He reviews the course of the fighting so far, and the relative success the Gaddafi forces have had in using their greater mobility to squeeze rebel pockets in Western Libya (though they remain unable to dent the rebel-held towns of the East.) He predicts that stalemate is likely without foreign assistance of some sort to the rebels, and discusses both possible military options and the importance of efforts “to crack the morale of regime forces through nonviolent means” including by helping the rebels with their radio communications. For the full piece, CLICK HERE. Knights also had an earlier good piece on the lessons from previous “no-fly-zones” to apply if something similar is attempted in Libya. (Another view on the military problems with a no-fly-zone is here.)
Next up, American strategic analyst Max Boot argues that the case for modest efforts to break the stalemate is strong if it looks likely to be effective. His primary point is that a prolonged stalemate will serve the interests of radical forces including al-Qaeda, because such civil conflicts tend to bring demagogues and extremists to the fore. He also argues that, if asked by the rebels, the US and its allies could establish whose side they are on by offering modest support, preferably without the use of ground troops. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. It appears the Libyan rebels are indeed asking for military support in the form of a “no-fly-zone” – they’re even asking former President Bush.
Finally, a law professor offers a step that may help the rebels without use of force – a focus on Gaddafi’s heavy use of imported African mercenaries. Louis Klarevas points out that Gaddafi’s use of such mercenaries is already illegal, but there are no enforcement provisions to deter their use. He urges the Security Council to declare their use a prosecutable offence – which is unlikely to deter Gaddafi from using them, but may make it harder for him to recruit mercenaries once they know that they may later be subject to prosecution. For all the details of Dr. Klarevas’ proposal, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Former American Security Council official Elliot Abrams urges the US to consider providing arms to the Libyan rebels. Abrams also recently explained why he still believes that the US’s 2003 deal with Gaddafi to get rid of his WMD program was justified.
- Former US UN Ambassador John Bolton argues that the focus on using the International Criminal Court to try Gaddafi for alleged wars crime is a mistake.
- A paper on how regime change in Libya may affect Africa, which Gaddafi had made the focus of most of his activities in recent years.
- An excellent gallery of photos from the Libyan conflict.
- A recollection of Gaddafi’s seizure of power in Libya in 1969.
- American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead on the “World’s Top Ten Gaddafi Toads” (that is, past toadies to the dictator.)
- An Israeli musician who produced a popular music video spoofing Gaddafi is now being asked to do one for Iran.
- Criticism of the US Obama Administration’s Libya stance by noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami. It is being alleged that the US is simply following the the European lead on Libya (see also here.)
By Michael Knights
March 3, 2011
In PolicyWatch #1768, Jeffrey White highlighted the possibility for a prolonged struggle in Libya’s civil war due to the lack of offensive capability demonstrated by both sides. The following article explores the reasons why strategic geography in Libya reinforces the potential for stalemate and underlines the need for international intervention if the deadlock is to be broken.
In the first ten days of fighting in Libya’s civil war, both the regime and rebel forces have demonstrated an inability to dislodge their opponents from well-entrenched positions. Each side has been able to occupy key terrain that initially was either abandoned or unoccupied by enemy forces but unable to capture enemy-occupied ground. This scenario favors the regime of Muammar Qadhafi, which holds the all-important central position between rebel enclaves, providing the advantage of interior lines of communication, and has greater mobility through its control of air forces and air bases.
Patterns of the Conflict
From February 20 to February 27, the Qadhafi regime experienced a widespread loss of control along the coastal belt, where most of Libya’s cities and economic infrastructure are located. From February 28 onward, momentum tilted back toward the regime in four key areas:
The regime initiated energetic security operations in Tripoli and the nearby industrial center of Zawiyah. The opposition-held town of Zawiyah — significant for its proximity to Tripoli as well as its major oil refinery and two oil and gas export terminals — is now surrounded by Qadhafi forces and has sustained numerous assaults since February 28, with opposition fighters narrowly maintaining their hold. When the coastal town of Sabratha was retaken by the regime on March 1, Zawiyah was cut off from Zuwarah, another opposition enclave to the west.
Misratah, located to the east of Tripoli, is Libya’s third-largest city and has resisted four major offensives by Qadhafi forces since February 21. The city is fully surrounded (except by sea), and regime attacks are escalating through artillery- and airstrikes targeting a ten- by fifteen-kilometer area held by the opposition.
To the southwest of Tripoli, Qadhafi forces are gradually clearing the Nafusa Mountains, pushing simultaneously from the capital and the area around the Algerian border. Opposition forces are now squeezed into a hundred-kilometer corridor between Nalut and Zintan.
In eastern Libya, opposition forces hold territory from the city of Marsa al-Burayqah eastward, although on March 1, regime forces recaptured the nearby town of Sidra and the port of Ras Lanuf, the location of Libya’s largest oil refinery along with power and oil export facilities.
Opposition forces in western Libya may be unable to hold out if they do not receive support. And their morale may suffer as they realize that forces in eastern Libya cannot offer the support needed. For the part of opposition forces in the east, should they march on Tripoli — by no means a certainty — they will face a series of challenges. First, they will need to form an army capable of breaking through the regime outposts at Sidrah, more than a hundred kilometers away from their current position. Thereafter, they will be obliged to travel an additional 200 kilometers across open desert highway and to defeat Qadhafi forces in the regime heartland (and Qadhafi’s tribal home) at Sirte. They may then be required to advance an extra 250 kilometers to link up with any surviving opposition forces in Misratah, followed by another 150 kilometers to fight a major battle to dislodge Qadhafi loyalists in Tripoli. This is an exceedingly tall order for a newly raised force lacking air cover, artillery, logistical support, or tank transporters capable of moving armored vehicles over long distances.
Although regime forces have demonstrated very limited combat strength where they have attacked opposition-held towns, the Qadhafi regime’s central position and air mobility constitute definite advantages. As noted, the loyalist stronghold of Sirte stands as an obstacle between western and eastern opposition forces seeking to link up with each other. In addition, regime forces control a contiguous wedge of territory connecting their three main centers: Tripoli, Sirte, and Sebha — the last of which is a southern desert city and air base where Qadhafi has strong familial connections. Sebha air base is also the main hub to which the regime flies mercenary reinforcements from sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, Qadhafi forces can utilize the regime’s helicopters to move troops between fronts, resupply them, and drop them at key points behind opposition lines.
If we were to freeze the situation today, control of strategic assets between regime forces and the opposition would resemble a patchwork quilt, as follows:
Air fields. The regime has mounted most of its airstrikes against eastern Libya from Ghurdabiya-Sirte Air Base in Sirte. In the west, strike missions are flown from Mitiga Air Base in Tripoli. The regime also maintains full use of two remote desert air bases, Uqba Ibn Nafi and Ghadames, that are effectively out of reach of opposition forces but within striking distance of potential targets. The regime controls seven other small air bases as well.
Military depots. The opposition has captured significant arms depots in eastern Libya, notably in Benghazi, al-Bayda, and Ajdabiya, prompting the regime to conduct seventeen air raids aimed at destroying these sites (at the time of this writing), all of them unsuccessful to date. Opposition forces have not had similar success in western Libya, however, where they have not apparently liberated large depots. As a result, their ammunition — typically garnered by units in small amounts before they defected to the opposition — may soon run short.
Refineries. Fuel products are necessary to keep society and military forces running. At present, the opposition controls three refineries in eastern Libya capable of processing 40,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) but no refineries in western Libya. (The Zawiyah refinery, capable of producing 120,000 bpd, is held by the government.) With its recapture of Sidrah on March 1, the government controls the 220,000-bpd refinery there as well, giving it control of 89 percent of Libya’s overall capacity. Though staffing of the refineries may be disrupted, the sites have large on-site oil reserves and, according to scattered press reports, appear to be in operation.
Oil fields. Setting aside gas facilities in western Libya, which are currently shut down, most of Libya’s oil fields are located in the eastern deserts and currently either controlled by the opposition or of indeterminate status. Oil tankers docking at Tobruk and Benghazi continue to be loaded with oil sold before the uprising. The opposition-controlled Arabian Gas and Oil Company (AGOC) (based in Benghazi) has continued making shipments both to signal its openness to doing business with the outside world and to delay addressing the technical challenge posed by having to completely shut off oil production as storage tanks become full. (This shut-off will probably occur in late March anyway.) AGOC is now seeking to establish itself as a legal marketing body for Libyan oil, a status that would allow it to receive payment for future oil purchases rather than having the monies accrue in regime bank accounts (which may themselves be frozen).
Implications for U.S. Policy
Assuming Qadhafi’s power base in the Tripoli-Sirte-Sebha triangle does not collapse, the military tide may continue to turn against opposition forces in western Libya, possibly leading to the fall of the region’s three opposition enclaves. Yet as long as opposition morale and unity hold together, eastern Libya may well remain under opposition control and the opposition may be able to fend off regime attacks. The much-discussed options of no-fly zones and no-drive zones would clearly limit many of the comparative strengths of the Qadhafi regime. However, if the United States and its allies truly seek to end the conflict decisively by assisting in Qadhafi’s overthrow, they may, in effect, have to become full-fledged combatants in order to deliver supplies to the western enclaves or to boost the offensive power of the eastern opposition forces through providing international air assets or launching airstrikes.
Before a military impasse becomes inevitable, a chance may still exist to crack the morale of regime forces through nonviolent means. Such an effort, however, would require energetic information operations to be launched immediately, potentially linked to a convincing threat by the international community to use force. The Qadhafi regime has attempted repeatedly to destroy opposition media stations through aerial bombing. Thus, there may be potential value in supporting opposition leaders’ radio and television broadcasting capabilities in the western enclaves and eastern Libya to help enhance morale, while interfering with regime transmissions. Further, the uprising could be strengthened by U.S. or international recognition of the opposition as a legal interim government, with full rights to market oil products.
Michael Knights is a Lafer fellow in The Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program.
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Commentary “Contentions” 02.03.2011 – 10:29 AM
Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, and Central Command boss Gen. Jim Mattis are right to warn that imposing a no-fly zone in Libya would not be cost-free. It would indeed be, as Mattis told Congress, a serious military undertaking that would require taking out Libyan air defenses. This is not a step we should take easily or lightly; we need to think through all the repercussions. But there is a powerful case for action that goes beyond the humanitarian imperative to stop a dictator totally divorced from reality who is using brutal force against his own people.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns that as things now stand, Libya could face a “protracted civil war.” If she’s right, that is the worst possible news, because civil wars tend to be polarizing events that allow radicals and demagogues to come to the fore. We have seen in the past how civil wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq unleashed pent-up sectarian tensions and empowered the worst extremists — from Slobodan Milosevic to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Moqtada al-Sadr.
When there is no strong central government to safeguard order, people tend to look for protection to militias of their own tribe or ethnicity. The result can be terrible violence, and it can last for years, making it hard to reimpose central control. Somalia is the worst-case example. Libya has the advantage of not being divided by religion — pretty much all Libyans are Sunni Muslims — but it is divided between Arabs and Berbers and, more important, among numerous tribes. Before it was unified by Italian invaders in the 1920s-30s, Libya was not even a single state; it was comprised of three Ottoman provinces (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan). Qaddafi, who has ruled since 1969, has not created strong governmental institutions. The potential for chaos and radicalization is great if the present fighting continues indefinitely — and al-Qaeda stands by, licking its chops, ready to take advantage.
If such an outcome can be prevented by a relatively modest commitment of American and allied airpower – and especially if we can act in cooperation with NATO as we did in Kosovo – the case for action becomes compelling. I would certainly not favor sending any ground troops unless something changes radically for the worse, but they should not be needed. As in Kosovo, there is a substantial force of rebels on the ground that can do the hard and dangerous work of finishing off the existing regime; we could help at a relatively safe remove. The key for the opposition is to decide what it wants. We should only help the rebels if they publicly ask for our help. But if they do, and we come to their aid, we could help to establish that America is on the side of the forces of freedom in the region — something that can rightly be called into question by our decades of support for various despots, including, most recently, the mad bomber of Tripoli, Qaddafi himself.
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How to go after Qaddafi’s mercenaries
The New Republic
February 26, 2011 | 12:00 am
It looks like Muammar El Qaddafi is preparing for what could be his last stand. Increasingly abandoned by his cabinet, diplomatic corps, and military, Qaddafi has turned to a desperate measure in order to shore up his regime: bringing in foreign mercenaries to fight his opponents.
According to human rights organizations, these freelance fighters have already contributed to many deaths. And, with the number of protesters taking to the streets and the number of mercenaries entering the country growing simultaneously, an even more horrific collision could be in the making. The soldiers-for-hire could very well be the determining factor of Libya’s future.
On Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council met in Geneva and unanimously voted to suspend Libya’s membership in the council (which the General Assembly must approve); later the same day, the U.N. Security Council met in New York to discuss how to stem the violence. So far, however, there has been little discussion of one option the U.N. has its disposal: invoking a little known resolution in order to deter the mercenaries themselves.
In 1989, the U.N. General Assembly passed non-binding Resolution 44/34, which declares, “States Parties shall not … use … mercenaries for the purpose of opposing the legitimate exercise of the inalienable right of peoples to self-determination, as recognized by international law.” By categorizing such offenses as prosecutable crimes, the international community created a norm against exactly what Qaddafi is now doing.
But this norm, like all U.N. non-binding resolutions, is not enforceable unless there’s an executing mechanism—and that’s what’s needed now for Libya. To help forestall the coming bloodshed, the Security Council should pass a binding resolution that, echoing 44/34, declares the use of mercenaries against the citizens of Libya an act of aggression and threat to the peace. This would let the mercenaries know that, after this conflict is over, they face the threat of prosecution in an international court.
Would this make a difference? Obviously it wouldn’t dissuade Qaddafi from employing mercenaries. And it’s hard to imagine that mercenaries are paying close attention to the goings on at U.N. headquarters. On the other hand, whatever else mercenaries are, they’re at some level rational actors. And so, it seems at least plausible that signaling the international community’s intention to hold them criminally liable following the conflict might make some difference in changing their current calculations. It’s not the solution to the Libya situation. But it might help, and it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Louis Klarevas is a member of the clinical faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where he also serves as coordinator of graduate transnational security studies. You can follow him on twitter at: twitter.com/NYUProf.