As the war in Libya enters its third month, forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi have finally been pushed out of the rebel-held city of Misrata after a siege lasting for most of the conflict. But the fact that a reversal might take place at any time highlights an emerging truth about the NATO-led action: the only decisive blow that could be struck by the UN forces to end the conflict is the killing of Gaddafi.
Meanwhile, members of the Obama administration will meet with the leadership of the Libyan National Transitional Council in Washington on Friday to underscore American support for the rebels. At the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for a ceasefire to address the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the war, especially in the city of Misrata. And despite claims from NATO that they are only hitting “military targets” in Tripoli, another air strike smashed an underground bunker in Gaddafi’s compound just hours after he made an appearance on Libyan television.
The dictator had not been seen in two weeks – since the reported death of his son after a Tomahawk cruise missile struck his living quarters in Tripoli on April 30. This led to speculation, both official and unofficial, that Gaddafi may have been badly injured or killed in the same action.
But Gaddafi appeared in a news clip on Thursday taken at a downtown Tripoli hotel meeting with tribal leaders. While there was no sound from the clip, the camera panned in on a desk clock that read “Wednesday, May 11.” NATO refuses to say whether the air strikes a few hours later were the result of Gaddafi’s appearance. “NATO is not targeting individuals,” Brigadier General Claudio Gabellini was quoted as saying.
While there are reports of unrest in the Gaddafi stronghold of Tripoli, the dictator’s forces appear to have a firm grip on the population and there is little chance that a revolt that might overthrow Gaddafi could erupt in the capitol.
Nevertheless, NATO has stepped up attacks against Tripoli in recent days, hitting communications and “command and control facilities” last night, including an underground bunker complex in the middle of Gaddafi’s fortified compound. If they are not targeting the dictator directly, it can be said that they would not be unhappy if one of their air strikes were to catch Gaddafi in the wrong place at the wrong time.
NATO should hope that its luck on that score changes soon. Secretary General Ki-Moon has called for “an immediate, verifiable cease-fire” in Libya on Wednesday and freedom of movement for humanitarian workers. The call for a cessation of hostilities was echoed by NGOs and other aid groups in Libya where a humanitarian disaster is occurring in cities like Misrata. The western port city has little food, fuel, or water for the people who haven’t fled the city with a pre-war population of 100,000.
Ban’s call may fall on deaf ears at the moment – the rebels unceremoniously rejected it – but as the conflict drags on into its third month with no end in sight, pressure may begin to come from NATO for some kind of negotiated way out. In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said, “There can be no solely military solution to the crisis in Libya” – a significant statement coming from a source that was saying one month ago that “Gaddafi must go.” Ostensibly, any negotiated solution would involve the dictator, and anything short of Gaddafi leaving the country and handing the rebels total victory would be a humiliation for NATO and the UN.
It is doubtful that there will be victory on the battlefield for the opposition forces despite their first real success in weeks that occurred in the besieged city of Misrata. A battle that raged for days at the airport ended with Gaddafi’s forces completely routed and the rebels in total control. Significantly, opposition forces pushed Gaddafi’s army far enough away from Misrata so that most of the city is now free of bombardment. The indiscriminate use of artillery and tank fire killed thousands of civilians and resulted in most of the remaining inhabitants moving into basements and cellars.
NATO air strikes contributed greatly to the victory, attacking regime forces in the open and government command and control centers. They are also assisting the rebels as they approach their next target: the city of Zliten, the next major town on the road to Tripoli, about fifty miles east of the capital.
While rebel gains are encouraging, the strategic situation has not changed in weeks. Gaddafi still holds most of western Libya while the rebels control the oil-rich east. Opposition forces do not have the men, the arms, the organization, or the leadership to mount the kind of serious offensive that would dislodge government forces from the west, while Gaddafi dare not concentrate his forces in an attempt to reclaim the east because of NATO air power. It is a classic stalemate that only Gaddafi’s death, or a much larger commitment to the rebels from NATO, could change.
The anti-government forces may not get arms from western countries, but they would be able to purchase them on the open market if they had the cash. To that end, the head of the National Transitional Council’s executive bureau, Mahmoud Jebril, will meet President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, in Washington on Friday seeking more aid. It is probable that President Obama will drop by that meeting for a photo-op.
But Jebril needs more than publicity. And he may get it if a bill sponsored by Senator John Kerry is approved by Congress. The bill would give the National Transitional Council about $180 million of the more than $33 billion in Gaddafi’s funds frozen in US banks and other institutions around the world.
But the rebel leader says that isn’t nearly enough. Jebril told an audience at the Brookings Institution that, “Solving this problem in four or five weeks might be too late.” He said they needed at least $3 billion in aid to manage the humanitarian crisis in besieged cities and the crude refugee camps that have sprung up since the fighting began.
The US has already pledged $53 million in humanitarian assistance and another $25 million in “non-lethal” aid to the rebellion. In addition, 22 nations meeting in Rome agreed to set up a special fund that the opposition could tap when needed. It was unclear if the unfrozen assets of Gaddafi would go into this fund or become part of a direct aid package to the Council.
As far as the make up of the opposition, NATO says it is confident that any Islamist element fighting on the rebel’s side is not dominant, despite evidence that one major commander fought against the US in Afghanistan and at least one town singled out by Gaddafi as an al-Qaeda stronghold sent an alarming number of its young men to fight in Iraq.
Abdulhakim al-Hasidi was captured by US forces in Afghanistan and is now leading a rebel unit that has seen action in several areas, including Misrata. And documents captured on the Syrian border by US forces in 2007 showed a surprising number of young men from the town of Derna volunteering to be suicide bombers in Iraq. Of the 440 names listed with hometowns, 52 were from that eastern Libyan city – the highest total from any one town listed in the documents.
Since March 31 when NATO took over combat operations, more than 6,200 sorties have been flown, including 2,460 combat strike missions. All that effort, all the bombs and missiles fired, have not led to any kind of a breakthrough that would allow NATO to think about leaving Libya any time soon. One wonders where we will be 30 days from now and if the frustrating stalemate that has become the signature of NATO’s efforts will continue and if so, whether some kind of negotiations with Muammar Gaddafi will be initiated in order to allow the alliance to exit the war.