Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi showed, once again, on Tuesday that he is far from defeated when he sent loyal troops on the attack for the second time in three days.
Tuesday’s offensive targeted the important coastal oil port of Brega. Although opposition forces successfully repelled what was the regime’s first major attack in eastern Libya, the hotbed of the anti-Gaddafi uprising, pro-government troops succeeded in retaking two towns close to Gaddafi’s western Libyan stronghold of Tripoli.
The other pro-regime offensive took place on Sunday when pro-Gaddafi soldiers launched an attack that resulted in the recapture of Ras Lanoof, a town near Tripoli. On both days, the Gaddafi forces employed warplanes, against which the opposition had little defense except outdated anti-aircraft guns.
But help for the anti-Gaddafi forces may be on the way. While Gaddafi’s troops were returning to rebellious eastern Libya, American warships were meanwhile entering the Suez Canal en route to the North African country. The USS Kearsage and the USS Ponce, carrying a contingent of about 1,000 marines, are equipped with a fleet of helicopters. An aircraft carrier will also join them in Libyan waters.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also discussing help for the anti-Gaddafi opposition in the form of a no-fly zone over Libya before the House Appropriation’s Defense subcommittee on Wednesday. Although Gates sounded cautious about an air assault by American and NATO aircraft, he said if the president ordered the military to support the Libyan opposition forces, the Pentagon could do it. The Defense Secretary did voice concerns, however, about the over-extension of American air assets and the political effect their employment in Libya would have, saying a UN mandate for the operation would be needed first.
“If we move additional assets, what are the consequences of that for Afghanistan? For the Persian Gulf? And what other allies are prepared to work with us in some of theses things?” Gates said. “We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”
But the Obama administration may have little choice but to get involved militarily in Libya, if it wants a speedy resolution to the conflict. The Libyan opposition forces cannot defeat Gaddafi quickly without outside help due to their ramshackle condition.
A story in the New York Times described the anti-Gaddafi force involved in the Brega fight as a “ragtag collection of rebel fighters.” While one observer praised the enthusiasm of the 15,000 men in Benghazi, from which the Brega fighters came and who have volunteered to fight Gaddafi, he also noted that they are military novices who still have to be trained.
“On Tuesday at a basketball court behind a local high school [in Benghazi], soldiers were teaching marching techniques to new recruits-ranging from 18 to 60 years old. An officer at a nearby desk jotted down the names and the blood types of the volunteers,” he said.
The defectors from the pre-revolutionary 50,000-man Libyan army that form the core of the anti-Gaddafi forces and are charged with preparing the offensive against Tripoli are themselves of low military quality. The publication Strategy Page states the reason for this is that Gaddafi kept the army in a deplorable state, especially regarding equipment and training, to prevent any challenges to his rule. Strategy Page also called its leadership “horrendous,” saying the army’s most useful pre-revolutionary role consisted of “suppressing unarmed demonstrators.”
“Libya’s military forces are regularly regarded as being among the worst anywhere in the world…,” the military publication reported.
It was reported the rebel opposition is itself divided over the question of outside intervention in the conflict. It formed an interim national government last Sunday in Benghazi, with Gaddafi’s former justice minister as its head, and called on Western powers to launch airstrikes against pro-Gaddafi positions. However, others present at the meeting opposed the move, saying Libyans should be the ones to liberate their country.
Air strikes by Western nations on his forces would help Gaddafi’s image among the world’s anti-Western crowd, since at times he has blamed the West for the rebellion. However, with an American aircraft carrier on its way to the Libyan waters, Gaddafi is becoming more conciliatory towards the opposition. He has promised the rebels a pardon and to give $16 billion to eastern Libya.
But in a state television broadcast from Tripoli, Gaddafi also promised “to fight to the last man and to the last woman in order to protect the country,” saying thousands will die if Western military forces intervene. And with Gaddafi’s past, erratic record for causing death and destruction, these are no empty threats. Western militaries also have to take into account that the Libyan leader may not have given up all his weapons of mass destruction when he reconciled with the West in 2003.
Since Gaddafi has ignored the international community’s call to step down and the Obama administration’s offer to go into exile, he has limited his options. And with his demonstrated desire to fight to the end and the weakness of the opposition forces, there appears to be no other alternative than Western military intervention to end the conflict quickly, ensure the oil supplies, and stabilize the region. Non-interference, Western governments realise, would see a protracted struggle, which could turn into a civil war that would benefit no one, least of all the Libyans.
The form this intervention should take is air cover for opposition forces battling Gaddafi, like the air cover NATO forces provided Albanian fighters in Kosovo against the Serbian dictator Milosovic. NATO aircraft should establish dominance quickly over the Libyan air force, since it is also in poor condition. Unlike Kosovo, however, Marines may have to land to protect the oil facilities.
There is killing going on every day now in Libya by Gaddafi loyalists, which President Obama, along with other world leaders, has demanded be stopped. A strong hand, however, is the only way to halt this terrible situation and keep it from becoming worse. Unfortunately, that strong hand in the form of a powerful American aircraft carrier rolling up off his shore is the only thing a dictator like Gaddafi understands.