NATO’s air operations over Libya more or less coincided with a loose interpretation of the UN Resolution 1973, which called for the protection of civilians by any means necessary.
With authorization from the UN, NATO relentlessly attacked Gaddafi’s forces throughout Libya. From the oil fields in the east, to the mountains in the west.
The airstrikes more or less consisted of the elimination of Gaddafi’s command and control centers and the destruction of his air defenses. Such attacks allowed NATO to establish air superiority over Libya as well as the additional effect of confusing Gaddafi’s ground forces.
From May to June, the rebels managed to secure a large amount of territory in eastern Libya, lift the siege in Misrata, and open new frontlines in western Libya. Much of the rebel achievements were due in part to NATO air support since the airstrikes essentially leveled the playing field after the destruction of Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry, such as his tanks and armored personnel vehicles.
The rebel forces are at a standstill for now. They are awaiting clearance from NATO and the National Transitional Council to give them the go ahead to move beyond the frontlines and into Tripoli. They can push forward and engage the loyalists; however, without NATO air support, they risk heavy casualties. So far, it appears NATO and the NTC are satisfied with the rebels in their current positions.
If rebel forces amass into the gates of Tripoli while Gaddafi is bunkered down with guns blazing, it will be a bloodbath that surpasses the Battle for Misrata. In Misrata, it was the images of Gaddafi forces shelling buildings and killing civilian bystanders that convinced the international community to support NATO’s air campaign.
In a future battle for Tripoli, the carnage will be the same, but the roles reversed.
Although anti-Gaddafi protestors are known to be in Tripoli, and most of the pro-Gaddafi supporters are staged, no one knows for sure how many are in the loyalist camp. And if they are substantial, the battle becomes even more difficult and bloody by the day.
NATO is already ill-equipped to handle close-air support strikes without American air assets, such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II. The addition of attack helicopters sent by Britain and France in late May have thus far been ineffective. NATO command appears to be reluctant to send out their attack helicopters during the day since they are vulnerable to enemy ground fire.
Even if NATO is capable of providing air support to the rebels in Tripoli, it will most likely back out since it risks harming civilians in the process. The alliance will undoubtedly face international backlash regardless of whether or not it joins the rebels in the liberation of Tripoli.
When the rebels do walk into the capital, there will be civilians stuck in between them and the Gaddafi loyalists. The battle is all but certain to claim a high number of civilian lives. The international community will ultimately blame NATO and the rebels for instigating civilian casualties in Tripoli.
In other words, this is a lose-lose scenario for NATO.
In the past week, NATO has focused most of its airstrikes on Tripoli rather than areas where rebels are battling against pro-Gaddafi forces, such as Misrata and Zlintan. With a majority of Tripoli’s air defenses wiped out, and Gaddafi’s command and control centers obliterated, the new airstrikes on Tripoli are probably aimed at Gaddafi himself.
In early June, a NATO official stated that Gaddafi was a ‘legitimate target’ since he is the head of the military. In NATO’s perspective, the Libyan military is actively attacking civilian populations. As the head of the Libyan military, he is involved in the attacks. Since the UN mandate states that allied forces could use “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, NATO under UN authorization, is obligated to kill Gaddafi.
Recent reports from U.S. intelligence suggests that Gaddafi is “seriously considering” leaving Tripoli as quoted by the Wall Street Journal. If this is true, NATO’s focus on Tripoli may be working. Even if NATO fails to land a bomb on the Libyan leader, he along with his family and close followers may still feel insecure enough to leave the capital.
Whether Gaddafi bites the dust or hightails it out of Tripoli, morale among pro-Gaddafi forces stationed in the capital will deteriorate. Without the main financer and symbolic leader, loyalists will most likely surrender or scatter. As a result, anti-Gaddafi protesters who are in hiding within Tripoli will no longer be afraid, and they will rise up. Negotiations with Gaddafi’s remaining inner circle and possibly some members of his family may be easier with Gaddafi gone.
According to the New York Times, small cells of rebel infiltrators within Tripoli have been in contact with disenfranchised Gaddafi loyalists. The news suggest that members of the defunct Libyan government may break away as soon as the leader is dead or out of town. If the rebel infiltrators can successfully eliminate Gaddafi or force him out by drawing his supporters away, they will save the capital from a Misrata-like siege as well as spare NATO from a political dilemma.
Of course, this scenario is not exactly the best case since there are plenty of unknowns. Nonetheless, whatever the result may be after Gaddafi’s removal, a prospect of a peaceful or at least a less violent liberation of Tripoli is better without him there. If he hunkers down in the capital, the situation will be utterly chaotic.
If you have any questions or comments on the topic, please e-mail me at [email protected]