The no fly zone
is pretty much a local response to the situation. The rebels lack air power, and apparently also lack basic anti aircraft missiles. Libya’s venerable fleet of MIGs and Sukhois dates to the 1970s and 80s, and there are some attack helicopters of similar vintage. Taking them out of the equation will redress the balance, but it will also create another situation- The ground war will be the deciding factor, and that’s by no means a clear cut solution.
Gadaafi’s forces include his paramilitary, a force used to outweigh the army in domestic political considerations in the past. This force is well-equipped and highly mobile. Added to this force are the tribal allies, including the Tuaregs, the famous fighters who fought the Foreign Legion for years during the French colonial period. The Tuaregs are a very powerful, well-armed tribe, and born desert fighters, particularly on their own home ground in the south west of the country.
Tactically, Gadaafi has been borrowing from Rommel, trying to outflank Benghazi through the desert. This hasn’t worked as well as it might have, mainly because the main loyalist forces were dispersed until recently. The western fighting has released forces for the attack towards Benghazi, hence the current situation. Gadaafi has also had enough time to accumulate a working assault capability
, which took several weeks due to the confused situation at the start of the rebellion.
The rebels are better organized than they were, but well short of an effective offensive force in terms of winning the civil war. They’ve been winning battles mainly on the strength of their character rather than the strength of their firepower. They’re capable of short forward moves and winning local battles, but there’s no sign of a capacity to destroy Gadaafi’s forces. Gadaafi’s attacks and weak local defenses have been the main tactical reasons for their victories.
NATO’s current plans don’t include much more than shutting down the Libyan air force. This is what’s called a “limited objective” in military terms, and “limited objectives” have a long lineage of creating further problems in military history. In this case, a no-fly zone could lead to a stalemate on the ground, with Gadaafi unable to win but the rebels still confronted with their own lack of military capabilities.
The ceasefire has its own problems. It’s extremely unlikely Gadaafi would settle for a shared power arrangement. Unlike other Middle Eastern leaders, his choice of places to go if he loses or draws with the rebels are very limited. He has a few possible safe havens in the tribal areas, but not many external options.
A ceasefire is further complicated by the tribal power issues. The tribes are power bases, and some are directly affiliated with Gadaafi. There’s not a lot of room to maneuver in this rather polarized environment for pro or anti Gadaafi factions. The war against Gadaafi could evolve into tribal brawls, trying to gain power over Libya’s assets and protect local interests.
Obama is quite right in saying that the no fly zone is essentia
l, and that a do-nothing approach would lead to the deaths of thousands of people. Gadaafi and his allies have shown a ruthless streak since day one of the rebellion. There’s been no information coming out of the areas retaken by the loyalists, which bodes very ill for any areas under threat at the moment.
The West, meanwhile, has been operating very slowly, and without much forward vision in terms of ending the conflict beyond a ceasefire. A protracted civil war in Libya could be another Congo, but that’s not yet on the radar in official statements. A peacekeeping force could be there for decades, achieving very little, because the Libyan desert is a big place and the ability to move around conventional military deployments is easy.
The real solution would be a cracking point, at which Gadaafi was unable to continue fighting. That’s nowhere in sight at the moment, and it’s known that he has assets in the south, well away from easy access for NATO or the rebels. This is very tough country, the Sahara’s back yard. The logistics for ad hoc forces attacking this area could be difficult, even disastrous, given the Tuaregs’ known abilities to fight effectively on their own home ground.
It is possible that the Tuaregs, who are roughly the equivalent of the Pashtun in Afghanistan, trans border forces, could decide to cut their losses and reach a negotiated settlement on their own behalf. But if not, the Libyan civil war could go on for a long time. Internal politics could sabotage a general agreement, and an Afghanistan-like series of north/south conflicts could hamstring the situation very effectively.
The only other military scenario leading to an end of the war is a decisive defeat for Gadaafi in the north, and that looks beyond the capabilities of the rebels at the moment. He’s mobile, with armor, and they’re not. Although the rebels’ tribal allies can obstruct movement through their lands and beat small forces, it’s debatable whether they could seriously affect the tactical situation on a wider scale.
NATO has a choice: Arm the rebels to give them credible capabilities, or sit back and watch the civil war. Gadaafi may or may not try to retaliate outside Libya, which may add color, if not any decisive effects to the situation. Either way, “limited objectives” may lead to limited benefits.