Gordian knot of the Libyan war -Interview
Laaska News April 22,2011
AUDIO Photo: EPA
Ricardo Alcaro, researcher with the Institute of International Affairs in Rome, Italy:
Let’s start our talk by emphasizing that it is understandable that people start thinking about ground operation in Libya, after France, the UK and Italy announced they were sending 10 military advisors each to Benghazi. I do think that it is still premature to predict that the ground operation will follow. In my opinion, a ground operation is an extremely remote possibility, not justifiable in any case by the current circumstances, and also very hardly justified within the current legal framework, in which NATO is carrying out the military operation against Gaddafi’s forces.
The problem with the operation in Libya is what in military jargon is called “mission creep”. So we started with one objective, clearly stated in the UN Security Council resolution 1973, that authorized military force against Libya, and this objective is protection of civilians; and we end up with another objective, which was in a way implicit in the former objective, – which is forced regime change by foreign arms. This is not foreseen by no means in the resolution of the Security Council and it is not acceptable to many countries outside the Western world. So this disconnect between open and widely accepted objective sanctioned by the UN, protection of civilians, and closely intertwined objective of ousting of Gaddafi, which however is not part of the mandate, given by the UN, and which is quite strongly opposed by many countries, starting with China and Russia, but also many members of the African Union – so this disconnect has produced as a stalemate, because the initial hopes – of course France and Britain were fully aware of the risk of mission creep, when they started the operation against Gaddafi; their hope was that Gaddafi would have surrendered, once confronted with the international coalition using arms against him, or that rebel forces would have won a victory on ground. So neither option actually occurred, neither scenario actually occurred.
Bombing campaign as usual has proved extremely difficult to force up political results by its own means; bombing campaigns are very effective as complementary means in part of a broader political strategy, but in terms of achieving a crucial military objective and actually a political objective, such as ousting of a dictator, where they have proven to be far less effective. I just think of Kosovo, and in Kosovo they had a 78-day long bombing campaign, which forced Serbia to negotiate, but which did not force Milošević out of office . So this is the problem with the bombing campaign.
The second problem is that the rebels proved to be quite less reliable in military terms, than perhaps speculated earlier. So we have a stalemate, in which Gaddafi’s forces cannot win because of NATO’s pressure from the air, but rebel forces are stuck in basically purely defensive positions.
So, what to do? We have many options here: you may either intensify the military operation by, for instance, intensifying the bombing campaign, you may put boots on ground, which is the ground operation option; you can arm the rebels. I do think that all these options are very problematic and besides they are unlikely to really resolve the problem. If you like, I can go through the three options point by point.
First of all, the ground operation, as I told you before, is still too early to talk about. Of course, there is going to be much talk about it in military circles, but politically it is extremely difficult for the leaders of France, Britain and the United States to justify a ground operation. We do not have to forget also that the resolution 1973, authorizing the use of force against Gaddafi in order to protect civilians, has a large mandate, and that it explicitly says that the objective of protecting civilians can be pursued by using all necessary means, barring an occupation force. International law experts and policy-makers in the United States, France and Britain can still argue that there is a distinction between occupation forces and ground forces. For instance, if you say that “we are sending in ground forces, but not to occupy the land, just to protect the humanitarian missions”, which is debated right now. Perhaps in legal terms you may have a point, you have some good reasons to say that this is allowed by the resolution, but in political terms it is extremely difficult, that the non-western world would buy this argument. Here in the West this is my impression, at least, people are not really aware of the extent, to which the Libya military campaign is perceived in the non-western world, in almost imperialist terms, in almost neo-colonial terms. In spite of all the emphasis put on the UN vote by the Americans, by the French, by the Britons, the outside world is quite skeptic; if not opposed to the military operation there, and this international legitimacy problem is definitely something NATO has to deal with. Another problem is in term of collision with the NATO, because we have been talking about France, Britain and the US, there are only two other NATO members, which are actually taking part in the military operations; there are others like Italy, for instance, which have more sort of supporting logistic role, but others still have almost no role at all, Germany for instance, Turkey, a key NATO member and a key player in the region, which adamantly opposed – well, before the military operation started, was outspokenly opposed to this operation; and it still is somehow, Turkey would definitely not like the military campaign to intensify.
And then there is the third problem – popular support within NATO members for the operation. For instance, in the United States these are the results of a very recent poll, conducted by the Washington Post, when 60% of the Americans say, they approve of the way Obama has handled the Libya crisis, but why? Not because Obama decided to intervene, but because Obama decided to intervene within certain limits, so the moment you will cross those limits, you will definitely have a public opinion problem. I do not feel, the United States taking this step, which the US vice-president Biden has made plainly clear yesterday, saying that Libya is not even in the middle of the US list of priorities; the US has two wars ongoing – in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has to do with the transition process in Egypt, with the crisis in the Gulf, there is a problem of Iran, the problem of Israeli-Palestinian conflict – these are the regional priorities for the US now. And in my opinion the US would not put a single boot on the Libyan territory.
So the intensification of the military campaign is quite problematic in many respects, and so is also the option of arming the rebels, because to arm a rebel does not mean to make him an effective soldier. To do that he needs training and time, perhaps more time than the public opinion of NATO members, involved into the operation, are willing to grant the leaders. And apart from that, I mean, the moment you start arming the rebels, which by all accounts are an unknown quantity, you do not know who they are, so you are really taking a risk.
Also here is the problem of international legitimacy, because once the rebels are armed and trained by western powers, they are going to be perceived, and they already are to a certain extent, as a sort of western proxies, and this would weaken again the position of the West regarding Libya. So what to do this is the problem, and we might intensify bombing campaign, we might arm the rebels; even though intensifying bombing campaign would also mean provoking more civilian casualties, which again would reverberate very badly in western public opinion.
But there is a way out, which is to change the objective and not tactics, I mean to stop this mission creep. Protection of civilians is OK. How to de-link protection of civilians from forced regime change? The way to do that is to negotiate regime change; so you have to negotiate Gaddafi’s departure, you cannot force it by bombs. We already have a sort of political platform, prepared by the African Union, in particular by South African President Zuma; and this international mediation option has many pros and some cons. The pros are the fact, that there is already a blueprint, this one prepared by the African Union, now the advantages are that there is an option of international mediation, leading to national reconciliation between Gaddafi’s loyalists and Gaddafi’s opponents. We have wide-spread international consensus, it could be easily sanctioned by the UN Security Council, it would be fully in line with the resolution 1973 spirit, that of avoiding civilian casualties, avoiding a war. But there is one main con, and it is Gaddafi himself. The US and French presidents together with the UK prime minister have made it plain, that they do not envisage any future of Libya, in which Gaddafi still plays a political or leading role. I think, that the United States in particularl, but also France and Britain, could be willing to support the international mediation effort on the condition Gaddafi steps down and leaves the country perhaps. So the problem is how do you convince Gaddafi to do that? You have to convince him by a combination of elements: by exerting military force, by conveying a message that the coalition has a plan for the future for Libya, and this plan is a plan of national reconciliation, a process bringing together not only the rebels, but also the tribes and clans, and whoever is still loyal to Gaddafi, – but not to Gaddafi family, that is the point. You have to continue to weaken the regime solidity by bribing – you cannot say that openly, but by bribing – key figures within the regime, by giving certain guarantees, particularly, that the International Criminal Court would not reach all of them. And finally you also have to talk to Gaddafi and prepare a sort of exit strategy for him, a sort of exile somewhere, where the International Criminal Court would have a hard time reaching him and his family. Perhaps the best way to pursue this objective for the coalition would be to make this goal of seeking international mediation openly and publicly, to go public and say – our campaign is aimed at creating the conditions for political mediation.
Perhaps another good thing would be to ensure that this political mediation would start a process under the aegis of the United Nations. Another good point would be to involve the African Union as a part of the mediating team within rebels and Gaddafi’s supporters. Of course, it is not certain, that this strategy will succeed, but, as of now and considering all the problems related to the other options, that of arming the rebels, that of intensifying the air strikes, that of putting boots on the ground, to me it seems the most feasible and least risky.