American military intervention in the Libyan crisis took a step closer to becoming a reality on Monday, as the Obama administration announced plans to position air and naval forces near the North African nation. Surprisingly, for a leftist administration that appears to mistrust American military power, a formidable aircraft carrier will be included in these forces, one of the Navy’s most powerful surface vessels. International leaders and analysts, meanwhile, appear to be preparing for the possibility that the apparent standoff between rebel and regime forces will escalate into a bloody, protracted civil war.
After more than a week of making only bland statements about the Libyan crisis, Hillary Clinton, who was in Geneva on Monday to meet with other foreign ministers, strongly indicated the government would use force to stop the bloodshed in Libya that has caused an unknown number of dead (estimated, however, to run in the hundreds).
“Nothing is off the table so long as the Libyan government continues to threaten and kill Libyan citizens,” Secretary Clinton said.
Clinton is not alone in making this sudden about-face. British Prime Minister David Cameron was even more explicit than the secretary of state, when he spoke about using “military assets” to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Cameron is asking his defense ministry to draw up a plan. But before a no-fly plan could be implemented, Italy’s foreign minister said a UN mandate would be needed, and his British equivalent, William Hague, agreed, saying “very strong international support” was required.
While Clinton was speaking in Geneva, President Obama was dealing with concerns regarding a UN mandate for action when he met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the White House on Monday to discuss anti-Gaddafi measures. The UN had adopted sanctions against Libya on Sunday, which included an arms embargo and a travel ban on Gaddafi family members. Obama imposed his own sanctions on the Libyan regime on Friday evening, signing an executive order blocking transactions involving Libyan government assets. So far, the Treasury Department states these assets have added up to $30 billion, making it “the largest amount ever seized in an American sanctions action,” according to a New York Times report.
After the Obama-Ban Ki Moon meeting, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, told journalists at the White House that discussions dealt primarily with “efforts to end the bloodshed” in Libya. However, Rice said it was still too “early” to consider military action. In her comments, Ambassador Rice also called Gaddafi “delusional” for saying the Libyan people still loved him.
The reason the administration and its allies are suddenly interested in a military solution to the Libyan crisis is likely because a sober assessment of the situation has revealed the Libyan dictator cannot be defeated, at least quickly, by the opposition, and a protracted stalemate could ensue. While the media gave the impression last week that anti-Gaddafi fighters would soon be in Tripoli, the Libyan dictator’s forces proved on Monday they were far from defeated. Regime loyalists launched an offensive, which saw the use of warplanes and, according to an anti-Gaddafi officer, the capture of the town of Ras Lanoof. The Wall Street Journal also reports that 3,000 pro-Gaddafi fighters arrived from Libya’s interior to reinforce Sirte, the Gaddafi tribe’s stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.
The fact European countries now intend to supply anti-Gaddafi forces with weapons underlines the opposition’s equipment plight and indicates that the conflict may be a drawn-out one. Despite the defections from the Libyan military, the anti-government opposition faces an uphill battle against Gaddafi’s forces, which have entrenched themselves in the Tripoli area. A reason for this is that, while the opposition forces may dispose of greater numbers, their core of defectors from Libya’s 50,000 man army, “half of whom are conscripts,” is neither well-trained nor well-armed. The military publication, Strategy Page, states the Libyan army was never “a significant factor in the country, and is neither as large, well-equipped, nor as professional as Egypt’s.”
“Libya’s military forces are regularly regarded as being among the worst anywhere in the world, and certainly within the Middle East, ranking below even Syria in its levels of training, equipment and readiness,” Strategy Page states.
Strategy Page also calls training and leadership in the Libyan army “horrendous,” saying its most useful role consisted of “suppressing unarmed demonstrators.”
Gaddafi deliberately kept his army in such a deplorable state to keep it from posing a challenge to his regime. Which was probably a wise move, since the army contained members from tribes unfriendly to his rule, which would also help account for the recent defections. According to a report in the French newspaper Le Figaro, there have been 20 anti-Gaddafi uprisings in the Libyan military since the late 1960s.
The units that received government largess, Strategy Page reports, were those charged with keeping the regime in power. Included in their number are special forces units and the Regime Security Brigade, commanded by one of the dictator’s sons. Members of Gaddafi’s tribe are also prominent in the Libyan air force, as Monday’s air strikes testify. But it is upon the People’s Militia, numbering “anywhere from 45,000 to 120,000,” that Gaddafi “lavished arms,” and which “might fight to the death to defend the capital.”
Moreover, Gaddafi may not have surrendered all his weapons of mass destruction in 2003 when he sought reconciliation with the West after Saddam Hussein’s defeat. If cornered, a vicious dictator like Gaddafi, who used to blow up discos and airplanes, would undoubtedly not hesitate to use them against advancing opposition forces, like his friend Saddam Hussein did in the Iran-Iraq war. To avoid such an eventuality and further bloodshed, the Obama administration has demanded that he step down, and has wisely offered Gaddafi an exit strategy in the form of exile. But, as Monday’s government offensive demonstrates, Gaddafi appears confident he can still hold his own.
Unfortunately, military intervention on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces is not an easy prospect. At the moment, the opposition is still not a united force. Susan Rice also said on Monday that while the administration has been in contact with elements in Libya’s civil society, “it’s unclear at this point who will emerge as critical opposition elements.”
There is also the danger that the anti-Gaddafi opposition will dissolve even before the battle to depose him is over. Although there is a national identity in Libya, recent events have shown many Libyans’ principal loyalty is to their tribe. The current insurrection began in eastern Libya among impoverished tribes that were not getting a share of the oil wealth due to a perceived lack of loyalty to the Supreme Leader. With the oil starting to flow again in eastern Libya, fighting could break out among the anti-Gaddafi tribes for the same reason, especially if any tribe lays sole claim to the oil-producing areas. For the sake of his survival, Gaddafi would probably love to see Libya become a new Somalia, a state and society broken by clan and tribal fighting.
A worst-case scenario, however, would see a protracted civil war between eastern and western Libya. An analysis by Stratfor Global Intelligence states such a possibility exists, since the country’s two oil-producing areas are around the opposition stronghold of Benghazi and just west of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s headquarters. The money from the oil sales would provide funds for a long-term struggle that could see Libya eventually split into two separate entities.
But such an eventuality would not be in anyone’s interest. A long-term, violent instability would not only cause many deaths, destruction and untold suffering among the Libyan people, but endanger the whole region. A quick, overwhelming strike by American and international forces in conjunction with the anti-Gaddafi opposition would end the killing, stabilise the oil supply and give Libyans a chance to embark on a post-Gaddafi future with most of their country’s structure still intact. The White House, it appears, is definitely considering giving Libyans that chance.