Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Libya Campaign Built On Sand

With Gaddafi as determined as ever to cling to power, tensions between Nato members are coming to the fore
By Con Coughlin
Four months ago, when British Prime Minister David Cameron led the international call for military intervention in Libya, the general assumption within government circles was that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi would realise the game was up the moment Nato warplanes began bombing his forces.
It did not seem to matter to Cameron and his principal allies in the anti-Gaddafi campaign that the main purpose of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which provided the legal justification for military action, was to protect anti-Gaddafi rebels from the possibility of being massacred by forces loyal to their leader. Together with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama, Cameron demanded that the military offensive would end only when Gaddafi was removed from power, so confident was he in the operation's likely outcome.
At a stroke an operation conceived on the basis of liberal interventionism had been transformed into one determined to achieve regime change. And it is to this end that Nato has undertaken a sophisticated bombing campaign designed as much to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi's regime to give up its vice-like grip on power as to protect Libya's civilian population.
While the Gaddafi clan appears to have lost none of its resolve, the same cannot be said for the Nato member states and Arab nations that originally backed the intervention, but are now desperately seeking an exit route. From the start of the military offensive, Nato's operations have been severely hampered by the fact that only half a dozen countries have been prepared to conduct combat operations.
This has meant that the lion's share of the more than 9,000 sorties have been flown by British and French warplanes, with Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Jordan and Qatar also making valuable contributions to the war effort.
But many other Nato nations, particularly Germany, have been unhappy from the outset at the demands made by the likes of Cameron that Gaddafi's removal, rather than the protection of Libyan civilians, is the ultimate goal. Now the simmering tensions that have severely hampered the effectiveness of the Nato mission have broken into the open with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi claiming he was against the operation from the start. "I am against this intervention, which will end in a way that no one knows," he said.
Berlusconi's comments are highly significant, as Nato is relying heavily on Italy's cooperation to maintain its air operations against Libya.
But by far the greatest threat to Nato's hopes of achieving a decisive breakthrough in the Libyan campaign is the onset of Ramadan.
Nato is relying increasingly on Libya's anti-Gaddafi rebels to complete the task of removing the dictator from power. But officials are now concerned that the rebel offensive will effectively grind to a halt at the end of the month as fasting rebel fighters will be in no position to launch a major offensive.
The continuation of hostilities during Ramadan will only serve to harden Arab opposition to the war. The approach of Ramadan has certainly brought an unwelcome dose of reality to many in the British government who, so far as I can tell, have assumed that so long as Nato maintains the pressure on Gaddafi, he will simply lose heart and renounce power.
With time now of the essence, there is suddenly a realisation that, unless there is a dramatic breakthrough in the coming weeks, it is a distinct possibility that the conflict will end with the country divided and Gaddafi still clinging to power, albeit to a fraction of the vast country he governed at the start of the year. To prevent such a disastrous outcome, an air of desperation is entering the contribution made by those countries, such as Britain and France, that have committed themselves to regime change in Tripoli.
The French government has confirmed that it has started dropping arms supplies to Libyan rebel groups. Britain, meanwhile, continues to send a steady stream of military ‘advisers' (many of them SAS veterans) to help the rebels become a more effective fighting outfit. The only problem with this dramatic escalation in European support for the rebels is that it is contrary to UN resolutions on Libya, which include an arms embargo that is supposed to apply to all sides.
If Europe is prepared to arm the anti-Gaddafi rebels, then what is to stop Gaddafi's regime receiving arms from its allies in Africa and elsewhere? Nor is it by any means certain that the rebels have the same objectives as their Western backers. Recent western intelligence assessments of the rebels have concluded that groups operating in Misrata have a very different agenda from factions operating in Benghazi.
Local tribes are also more concerned with defending their own territory than occupying the territory of other tribes. Thus there is no shortage of rebel fighters willing to defend Benghazi, but they become more reluctant to fight when asked to move out of their own territory and advance on Tripoli.
These tensions broke to the surface when the Transitional National Council suggested it was prepared to open negotiations with Gaddafi to end the fighting. Their comments were quickly rejected by William Hague, the British foreign secretary, who insisted there could be no settlement that allows Gaddafi to remain in power.
But, with the clock ticking, and with no prospect of a decisive breakthrough in sight, Gaddafi's survival remains a distinct possibility, which was not the outcome Cameron hoped for when he first embarked on his risky gamble in the Libyan desert.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 13/07/2011
- Con Coughlin is a British commentator in The Daily Telegraph

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