Libya: the costs of stalemate

The west's military-political strategy prolongs the war in Libya and gives space to authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region.

(This article was first published on 19 May 2011)

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 May 2011

The course of the war in Libya was set on 14 April 2011, when a joint statement from three western leaders (Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy) made it clear that the core aim of the Nato operation launched almost a month earlier was regime termination. The protection of civilians remained the formal objective enshrined in United Nations Security Resolution 1973, but the unequivocal view that Gaddafi had to go was revealing of the real intention of the most powerful combatant states (see “Libya: the view from the bunker”, 21 April 2011).

Since then, as the air-strike campaign begun in the late evening of 19 March reaches its two-month mark, the war has turned into a stalemate. On the ground, the anti-Gaddafi rebels make occasional progress (as in Misrata during the past week), but they do not pretend to any ability to unseat the regime. 

As the conflict has developed Nato has intensified its air-assaults, with more focused targeting on core regime command-and-control sites in Tripoli. In the four weeks to 26 April, for example, Nato’s 3,981 air-sorties included 1,658 strike-sorties (see Tom Kington, “Managing Limited Assets”, Defense News, 2 May 2011). Yet the British armed-forces chief, General David Richards, acknowledges that the effort so far is insufficient: Nato must upgrade its operations even further to achieve its objectives in the war.

The diplomatic war

In this context, two current diplomatic moves are significant. First, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) - following a decision on 3 March to open an investigation of Libya - on 16 May requested ICC judges to issue warrants against three senior regime figures on account of crimes against humanity committed since February 2011: Muammar Gaddafi himself, his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and his brother-in-law (also Libya’s head of intelligence) Abdullah al-Sanousi.

Second, greater Russian involvement in the crisis is reflected in the meeting of foreign minister Sergei Lavrov with two Gaddafi envoys on 17 May. The meeting itself was both unexpected by and unwelcome to Nato, not least as Lavrov is strongly opposed to Nato's military actions; he may well regret Moscow’s failure to veto Resolution 1973, which Nato forces have interpreted as carte blanche to attack at will the regime’s main facilities.

In the event, Lavrov gave little succour to the Gaddafi side in that he was reported as calling on the regime to stop using force against civilians and even to withdraw armed units from urban areas. Yet it is likely that these comments were aimed as much at western politicians, in that Lavrov’s deeper purpose is to use its leverage with Tripoli to create space for diplomacy. The failure of proposals from the African Union has left a vacuum here, and Russia senses a no-lose situation: even if its own efforts get nowhere, they affirm Russia’s role as an important player in a conflict Nato regards as its own.

The air option

Nato’s core weakness in this conflict is that it lacks the air-power resources needed to destroy the regime. Barack Obama's decision to withdraw most United States aerial resources soon after the start of the war is vital here. In turn this reflects Washington’s reluctance - after its chastening experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and amid concerns over the combustible events in the middle east - to get embroiled in yet another war in the region.

The only option left to Nato planners is an expansion of the air war, in ways that extend the operation far beyond taking the direct protection of civilians that Resolution 1973 enjoins. This recalls the alliance’s similar predicament during the war over Kosovo in March-June 1999, when Nato strike-aircraft operating from Italy proved unable to destroy the carefully hidden and well-protected Serbian armed forces.

Nato responded to this dilemma by targeting Serbian infrastructure, both in Kosovo and in Serbia proper. Its planes hit factories, power-stations, and transport links; in one controversial attack it bombed the headquarters of state TV in Belgrade, killing a number of staff. The damage to the wider economy was extensive; an Economist Intelligence Unit report estimated it at $60 billion (at 1999 prices), and forecast that the country’s GDP would contract by 40% that year.

The operation was in the end a success for Nato in that Slobodan Milosevic capitulated and there were no deaths on the Nato side, albeit the civilian toll was large and the aftermath messy. The expressed views of General Richards suggest that a similar outcome may be what is now planned for Libya. The apparent defection of Libya’s oil minister Shukri Ghanem, and the flight of close members of his family to Tunisia, indicate the degree of pressure the regime is under; the possibility that it will collapse or capitulate, as mentioned regularly in this series of columns, cannot entirely be ruled out.

The Bahrain-Syria mirror

The experience of the period from February-May 2011 still cautions against this outcome. The regime retains support, especially in the west of the country; and many of those behind it have a lot to lose if it goes. But it is worth considering what would happen if Gaddafi’s regime were terminated as a result of the war.

Two major consequences are probable. The first is that an era of instability would open in Libya, where the removal of the leadership’s rigid control and the determination of its loyalists to retain their position would work against hopes of transforming the country into a lead player in the Arab spring, committed to progressive reform.

Such instability in turn could increase pressure for extended foreign intervention. But Russia (and China) would block any proposed United Nations involvement, and any deployment of Nato ground-troops without a UN mandate would reinforce the widespread view that western intervention in the region is motivated more by the desire to control Libya's oil-and-gas resources than by any loftier aspirations.

The second consequence is the evident contrast between Nato's involvement in the Libyan war and its inaction over repression in Bahrain (where many people were killed in February, more than 800 detained since then, amid allegations of torture) and Syria (where an estimated 700 people have been killed in a brutal state crackdown since protests broke out in the southern town of Deraa on 18 March). 

The Bahrain case is particularly relevant, as it is a strong western ally: the Gulf state hosts the US fifth fleet, has close links with Britain and France, and is strongly supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (who have troops and police in the country supporting the government). All this helps explain why official criticism of the repression has been limited at best (see “Bahrain, Libya, and the Arab spring”, 17 March 2011).

Whatever happens in Libya in the coming weeks, this dichotomy in western policy will continue: casting a shadow over humanitarian claims and undermining proclaimed purposes. The damage and the lost opportunities will be measured for years to come.

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