What started out in Libya a few weeks ago as street protests by people demanding jobs, an end to political oppression and a fair share of oil revenues is developing into a bloody, full-scale civil war.
The rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces both experienced successes and reverses over the weekend as back-and-forth battles continued to rage across the North African country. Rebel forces recaptured the oil town of Ras Ranuf but had their advance halted when they were ambushed and pushed out of Bin Jawaad. Pro-Gaddafi troops attacked several rebel-held points, including the city of Zawiyah, which they had failed to capture last Friday. But like Friday’s attack, the Zawiyah offensive was also reported a failure.
Besides the ground war, the outside world focussed on the Gaddafi government’s use of its modern air force to bomb the poorly armed rebel fighters who lack air power. This one-sided aspect of the conflict has increased international concerns about Libyans, both rebels and civilians, being massacred from the air. Even worse, Gaddafi’s air force and superior weapons could cause the war to become a protracted one that could destroy the Libyan state and eventually give a revenge-filled Gaddafi the upper hand. All of which has increased the pressure on the White House to establish a no-fly zone over Libya.
Adding to this pressure, three senators representing both parties, John Kerry, Mitch McConnell and John McCain, have also called for the establishment of a no-flight zone. But despite the fact President Obama has demanded that Gaddafi step down and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating all options are on the table, the White House is still expressing caution.
“Lot’s of people throw around phrases like a no-fly zone – they talk about it as though it’s just a video game,” said William Daley, the new White House chief of staff, on NBC’s “Meet The Press” television show.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates also spoke carefully when he addressed the risks of the no-fly zone option last week before a House subcommittee, saying it would require “a big operation in a big country. Gates said: “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone.” Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, challenged Gates’ statement.
“That’s not the only way,” Kerry said. “You could crater the runways.”
Joining the three American senators in the call for a no-fly zone were the anti-Gaddafi opposition leaders themselves. They are still adamantly opposed to foreign troops becoming involved in the conflict, admirably stating they have to be the ones to depose Gaddafi. But Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the Libyan National Council, the political body of the anti-Gaddafi opposition, told the New York Times that air assistance is needed.
“We require help to stop the flow of mercenaries into this country,” he said.
The Libyan air force has been called Gaddafi’s “trump card.” A story in the German publication Der Spiegel calls it “one of the main factors still propping up the regime and the most serious threat to the insurgents.” Its 18,000 personnel are made up mostly of men from his own tribe and the allied Magariha tribe. Unlike the 45,000 man Libyan army, the air force has experienced few defections, remaining fiercely loyal to Gaddafi.
The Libyan air force’s 150 warplanes can pack a solid punch, even though 100 of them are older Russian Mig-21 and Mig-23 aircraft. According to the Spiegel story, they have been used sparingly in the conflict so far. But as opposition forces get closer to Tripoli, one can expect their constant appearance over the battle field as well as that of the powerful “Russian attack helicopters,” which have been noticeable by their absence.
But what the opposition is currently most concerned about is the use of the air force’s seven squadrons of transport planes to ferry mercenaries to the conflict from other African countries. This would not only prolong the war, the anti-Gaddafi forces realize, but make victory doubtful. Gaddafi’s mercenary force, called his “parallel army,” is estimated at about 20,000 fighters, which make up for the loss in defections from the regular army.
A story in the military publication Strategy Page reports the Libyan embassy has been offering Tuareg tribesmen in Mali and Niger $10,000 to fight in Libya. With drought and the poor economic conditions in their countries, Tuaregs, who have a history of serving as mercenaries, would be hard-pressed to turn down such a windfall. “For centuries,” they also have had “a hostile relationship with their settled neighbors” and probably would not hesitate to kill Arab Libyans, Strategy Page reported. These are exactly the kind of people Gaddafi is looking for to help suppress the uprising he is facing. If the Gaddafi forces can keep the rebels away from Tripoli for another week, Strategy Page predicts he can assemble “a substantial force of several thousand armed and loyal Tuareg.”
“These mercenaries would prove a difficult force to overcome,” the publication states.
Opposition fighters are also receiving outside help, albeit quietly. Egypt is reported to have sent about a hundred commando operatives to help the “amateur rebel force.” But this is probably not an altruistic move on the part of the Egyptian government. Rather, energy-poor Egypt is casting an eye on the oil and gas fields in eastern Libya in case the country remains divided.
Without Western help, the opposition forces are facing an uphill battle that could last a long time and cost many lives, even ending in their defeat. Yehudit Ronen, a Libya expert at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, confirms this, saying the anti-Gaddafi opposition is currently facing “an almost invincible force” in the mercenaries and the Libyan air force. She also predicts a long conflict that will leave Libya badly disfigured.
It is noteworthy that while Clinton has said all options are on the table, none have been chosen. While time is ticking away, the administration appears to be wavering and delaying in making a decision about Libya. In reality, if a quick end is to be brought to the conflict, there is only one option: American and NATO air intervention. The Libyan air force and anti-aircraft missile systems must be taken out. With Western air forces masters of the situation, the opposition would gain an immeasurable advantage as well as confidence, while Gaddafi’s support may begin to erode and the mercenaries will want a one-way ticket home. When Clinton meets the other NATO defense ministers later this week to discuss Libya, it is the only option that should be on the table.