Libya: time to decide

Providing air support and arms for the Libyan opposition is necessary if stalemate and partition are to be avoided, argues Ranj Alaaldin
Ranj Alaaldin
31 March 2011

Libya’s opposition forces still need outside help. After making rapid progress and re-capturing the eastern strategic towns of Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf over the weekend they are, once again, on the retreat and yesterday lost the oil-town of Ras Lanuf to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime loyalists.

Having gathered in London on Tuesday the time has now come for the dithering members of the allied forces and the broader international community to decide which side of the fence they sit on: either replace the certainty of tyranny with the uncertain politics of a post-Gaddafi Libya or prolong Gaddafi’s grip on power and face a set of dangerous and potentially insurmountable consequences.

The dithering over these two choices will allow Gaddafi to consolidate his position, regain the momentum and pursue brutal retribution; it will also provide for what many states regard as the worst possible outcome: the partitioning of Libya. Turkey and others in the Arab world have, in particular, been vocal with their concerns toward the actual or de-facto partitioning of Libya. Yet, their refusal to accept the reality on the ground and the need for the West to go all the way ensures their concerns will soon be realised.

If Libya is to avoid partition and if civilian populations are to be protected, then coalition forces must act toward an objective that guarantees them both: the removal of Gaddafi and his regime. This does not mean it has to actually target Gaddafi, his family or other regime loyalists, not least those within the security establishment, but it does mean the other less costly and politically sensitive option has to be pursued and that is the arming of the rebels combined with continued airsupport for the rebels as they advance to the west.

Anything less will either, firstly, allow Gaddafi to regroup, bide his time and then take the rebels and international forces back to square one and on the retreat – or, secondly, pave the way for a protracted conflict dominated by tit-for-tat infantry clashes, ambushes and, in essence, the feared West-East divide that lies around the corner.

Of course, the West can choose to carry on in its current form and hope that it can still achieve its objectives. That is, continue to enforce the no-fly zone, as well as the no-drive zone (though Nato is still indecisive even about this as it takes control of operations) and prevent Gaddafi’s jets and tanks from advancing toward the East. In theory, this ensures the rebels are protected from any major regime advances toward their strongholds; it is also pursuant to the strict interpretation of the terms of Security Council Resolution 1973, making it politically appealing.

The uncertainty that stems from this policy, however, comes from the possibility that it will merely provide for a stalemate whereby neither the regime nor the rebels are able to make any significant progress. It provides, in essence, for a policing role that divides the West from the East and one that requires months, possibly years, of commitment, which is by no means guaranteed given the fissures already apparent within the coalition. Even if Western forces were able to commit to continue such measures, Gaddafi will, over time, successfully penetrate the sensitive political and diplomatic dynamics of his enemies. In other words, a Western policing role is not guaranteed to be sustainable.

Additionally, Gaddafi will resort to other effective tactics like the deployment of paramilitary forces – disguised as civilians or otherwise – to infiltrate opposition-controlled territory, undermine the opposition and its own internal problems and kill significant opposition leaders. Even if it takes years, gaps will, over time, appear for Gaddafi to exploit with the aim of destabilising and retaking the East.

Further, this scenario gives Gaddafi legitimacy; it will encourage other despots to suppress dissent in a similar fashion and leaves a problem that will fester and require the West to come back to in the future. It is for these reasons that Nato member Turkey’s offer to mediate a ceasefire is counter-intuitive to the extreme, not least since Gaddafi himself has crushed any real chances of having a genuine ceasefire as a result of his devious and disingenuous actions.

This is why arming the rebels is both feasible and effective. Opposition forces are, currently, too weak to be able to force Gaddafi from power. The West may pin its hopes on a mass defection within the army and an uprising in Tripoli but it has become clear that this is no longer likely. Gaddafi still has enough hard currency and sits on enough resources to maintain his network of patronage in Tripoli, buy the loyalty of the military, tribal leaders and so intimidate the people into submission.

This is not to suggest that progress by the opposition does not have the potential to encourage others to join their ranks. But the hesitant and still undecided segments within Libya must be convinced that the opposition is in fact the winning horse; for that to happen, the opposition must first look like one.

Coalition governments have so far resisted the politically charged and opportunistic demands to define what the so-called end-game will be, this is wise since it is difficult to predict exactly how things will develop and astute since Gaddafi should not be given any glimpse of what allied plans are. It is necessary though to prepare for the various potential scenarios that could unfold over the coming weeks but, more importantly, it is better to avoid half-thought out measures, like Turkey’s offer on Sunday to broker a ceasefire or giving Gaddafi the option to leave Libya (which only offers him a lifeline). These weaken the resolve of the coalition, shows weakness on the part of allied forces and send all the wrong signals to a regime that has already defied the odds against it.

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