While Obama said in his speech on Libya last Monday that “America’s role would be limited” and he “would not put ground troops” into the North African country, the British were contemplating doing just the opposite. Reports in British newspapers on Sunday state Great Britain is preparing to send 600 Royal Marines to the Libyan conflict, marking an escalation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) military intervention. According to reports, a Royal Navy fleet composed of six warships and marines will make up a mission to provide humanitarian aid to rebel-held towns.
In making this controversial move, the British government probably believes it has no choice, if NATO wants to accomplish its objectives of regime change, restarting the oil supply, and avoiding an open-ended and costly war.
NATO is currently operating in the Libyan conflict under a United Nations’ (UN) mandate that allowed the Western military alliance to establish a no-fly zone to save lives. But critics say NATO’s warplanes have already exceeded this humanitarian directive by continuing to fly missions directly supporting rebels on the ground after Gaddafi’s troops were driven back from rebel-held Benghazi and after threat of a massacre had subsided. One of those air strikes mistakenly killed 13 rebel fighters last Friday.
British politicians, naturally, are in full denial mode regarding a possible troop deployment to Libya. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said there is going to be a land invasion. The UN mandate, he recently told members of Parliament, did not allow for any foreign ground forces. His foreign secretary, William Hague, said the Royal Marines in question were preparing for a military exercise elsewhere and also emphasised there will be “no large-scale ground force placed in Libya.” As for the widely reported plan to arm the rebels, Hague said there presently is none, but that measure has not been ruled out.
While Cameron is insisting Britain will adhere to the terms of the mandate, he and other NATO leaders, almost from the start of the conflict, have said Gaddafi has to go. President Obama also numbers among those leaders who have stated Gaddafi must step down. In Obama’s judgement, the Libyan leader has lost all credibility with his people and must leave, although the UN mandate does not call for regime change.
“We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supply of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Gaddafi leaves power,” Obama told Americans a week ago.
Unsurprisingly, Gaddafi is refusing to co-operate with NATO plans for his future. The main reason for this is that the fight in Libya is a mainly a tribal one. The Eastern Libyan tribes opposing Gaddafi want to kill him and his family for the wrongs and deaths he has inflicted in the past on their family and tribal members. It is fear of this gruesome fate that is behind Gaddafi’s fierce resistance and refusal to step aside.
Leaving the country is also not an attractive option for Gaddafi, and the Western allies are partially at fault for this. They may have blocked his exit from Libya by having him and several of his sons indicted by the International Criminal Court. The indictment’s timing was strange, since the world has known for forty years the Libyan dictator was a sadistic murderer, who brutally treated his own people and foreigners. The fact that it was handed down only in conjunction with the current crisis indicates it was politically and cynically motivated, probably for use as a propaganda tool. But worse, it was counterproductive. With death awaiting him and his clan inside the country and the International Criminal Court outside if he should flee, it is no wonder Gaddafi is choosing to remain at his post and fight to the death like a cornered rat.
Besides Gaddafi’s determination to stay on, probably the most important military factor influencing the British decision to send in ground troops is the weakness of the rebel forces. So far, the rebels have proven inadequate in battle against Gaddafi’s better-armed and better-trained troops, and apparently will remain so for some time yet. The Wall Street Journal reports, however, that the rebels’ battlefield performance is improving, possibly with the help of Western Special Forces troops. But NATO intelligence agents on the ground in Libya assessing the opposition forces have probably told their governments there will be no quick victory and removal of Gaddafi due to the rebel troops’ poor fighting condition.
However, a quick defeat of Gaddafi is needed if NATO is going to realise its other goal of resuming oil shipments as soon as possible. Libya is the major source of crude for France, Great Britain and Italy, who also have large investments in the North African country. Saudi Arabia is currently pumping more oil to make up for the Libyan shortfall.
To make matters worse, the fighting in Libya is currently taking place around Brega, a major oil facility and critical revenue earner. It would be harmful to both Libyan and NATO interests if the conflict should settle there into a stalemate, paralysing the oil flow for an extended period of time. Of all the goals the British hope to achieve with troop intervention, restarting the oil supply is the most important in the short term and may see the British troops only seize the oil terminals.
NATO appears to have ruled out negotiations with Gaddafi, although Gaddafi’s son is proposing a peace plan that would see a transition to a constitutional government. But this insistence on the Libyan dictator’s removal may not produce an end to the violence. Like in Afghanistan at the end of the Soviet conflict, the victorious tribes may begin to fight each other, especially over the prized oil areas. Moreover, the danger exists that radical Islamists, strengthened by weapons they looted from army arsenals, will attempt to move into any post-Gaddafi power vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood is already regarding Libya as new territory for expansion.
The British will likely get around not having a UN mandate to send in ground troops by labelling the mission a humanitarian one. This intervention by a former colonial power, however limited, will undoubtedly anger Arab and other Third World countries. But after 11 days of air attacks, the Gaddafi regime is proving to be a resilient one, prompting, NATO believes, the need for a quick end to the war. It is also a need that would already have been conveyed to Obama and with which he is in agreement. But with no disengagement strategy and Libya continuing to disintegrate, once Western troops are ashore, past experience has shown it is never easy to get them out.