Gaddafi obstinate as NATO shows signs of strain

Discontent and discord are the main features of NATO's intervention in Libya. By Seosamh Ó Riain.

The NATO website may declare that NATO and Partner Foreign Ministers concluded their two-day meeting in Berlin on 15 April showing unity and resolve on all fronts after focusing their discussions on ‘Libya, Afghanistan and Partnerships’. However, to the discerning eye, it will be apparent that discontent, discord and dissension abound vis-à-vis NATO’s strategy on Libya. Imaginary demarcation lines of division do not just cut through the Libyan desert up to the Ras Lanuf oil refinery in the central area of Libya’s coastline, but also surface in the boardrooms of power at NATO’s HQ in Brussels. There is at least one area of consensus - the war against the Libyan dictator will not cease anytime soon, in stark contrast to the comments expressed by the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé on 24 March that “the international military operation against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces may last days or weeks - but not months.” 

The split in the international coalition is multifaceted, having as its epicentre the implementation of UN resolution 1973 (2011), which called for the imposition of a no-fly zone on Libyan military aviation and permitted air attacks in order to protect the civilian population. Ten members of the 15-member United Nations Security Council voted in favour of the resolution, but five countries abstained, India, Germany and Brazil, China, Russia with the latter two being veto-wielding permanent members. All five have all voiced their vehement opposition to excessive use of military intervention, which has led to a polarisation of the international community. This leaves NATO very much reliant on those western powers that have aroused much Arab antipathy - due to the misguided and often maligned bipartisan policy of supporting repressive autocrats in the region - over the last number of decades and against whom the charge of colonialism crackles cacophonously in the background. The coalition forces have also failed to dispel disparity of opinion on issues ranging from whether heavily-armed troops should be deployed to provide humanitarian help; on whether to supply the rebel forces with weapons or to free up Gaddafi’s frozen assets in order to enable the rebel forces source arms themselves; up to which NATO members should commit what resources to sea and air power deployments. Perhaps the pertinent question in light of the USA’s non-leading role and apparently agnostic attitude in the Libyan mission, and the question that few dare to pose is: has NATO the nerve to stand united and deal with the Libyan question in a cohesive and professional manner? Or will the alliance collapse under a torrent of internal wrangling and discordance? The latter would have profound implications for world security.

Many have underestimated Gaddafi’s ability to survive the coalition’s onslaught in Libya. It seems people were very much susceptible to the hype that his regime was fragile and frail and would falter sooner rather than later. However, without the necessary US military might to pin down Gaddafi, NATO has been unable to assist in any tangible manner the onwards march of the disorganised and at times chaotic rebel fighters. City after city has been possessed and lost, only to be repossessed again by each side alternately; leading to a grinding, gruelling and dreaded stalemate. Gaddafi’s troops have retained power in the west of the country, the rebels, with the aid of coalition’s air strikes, have kept the eastern door shut. Just about. It is redolent of a clueless, diffident and irresolute NATO campaign which the coalition forces rushed into, assuming a swift march to victory and are now left facing down a potentially drawn-out air and possibly land war. They remain unsure as to the precise rebel aims and the efficacy of the particular form of democracy they seek to impose on Libya. There are suspicions that al-Qaida has infiltrated the rebel camp and is active in the conflict, hence the reluctance to arm the opposition. Western powers know who they are fighting but are not half so clear as to who they are defending.

Two possible strategies present themselves in relation to Libya: NATO maintains the stalemate, by preventing the onwards march of Gaddafi’s troops, whilst the rebels further entrench themselves in the East. This may allow a political movement to gather strength leading to the eventual demise of the despotic dictator. This is potentially a very dangerous strategy however, as a long-term mission could alienate western voters, where, amongst other leaders, Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama are already under severe pressure due to a plethora of domestic problems. The second option would see an escalation of the military campaign, demanding increased cooperation from NATO members in military attacks, arming the rebels and possibly even deploying ground troops. In fact, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, hinted that small units may be mobilised. Such actions may lead to the demise of Gaddafi, but would also contribute to soaring casualties and risk alienating even further the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) - who together have a population of more than 3 billion, or about 43% of the world’s total, and whose economies account for 18% of the world's economic aggregate. It would also further change the dynamic and shift the zeitgeist of the ‘Arab Spring’ and most probably send out a negative message to non-violent Arab movements - vectors of the revolution - across the region. For in order to topple Gaddafi through violence NATO would have little alternative but to employ a level of hitherto unseen force in the campaign which would undoubtedly result in a heavy civilian death toll, thereby emasculating the justification of the original NATO intervention (as set out in resolution 1973) - to avert large-scale civilian massacres.

Having distanced himself from the NATO-led mission for the last few weeks, Obama has returned to centre stage again with last Friday's joint statement - with David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy - on Libya in which the triumvirate upped the ante and clearly stated their intent on regime change: "Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good." The primary premise for this was to bring Britain and France in from the cold, as they have been feeling increasingly politically isolated in the coalition. However dubious and divisive the casus belli for military action in Libya was deemed until now by the BRICS, exceeding the already disputed provisions set out in resolution 1973 would invoke unpleasant memories of the UN’s interpretation of ambiguous wording in resolution 1441 (in 2002), with which they gave the USA their imprimatur to the designated course that George W. Bush was already set upon in Iraq. NATO would do well this time round to heed the words of the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who wrote: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” 

Image top: B.R.Q. Network.