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Analysis: Military and politics play in parallel over empty Libyan skies

Analysis: Military and politics play in parallel over empty Libyan skies

As Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi holds out – even if foreign attacks are only by air, so far – the Libyan crisis-cum-civil-war threatens to spin out in political pot-shots (mostly in the US, of course). The potential to queer the pitch remains high. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Satellite TV broadcasts are showing crippled Libyan tanks on the outskirts of Benghazi, Libya’s second city, and the heart of opposition to Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade regime. The destroyed vehicles are from coalition air strikes in the second day of air activity designed to create a no-fly zone over Libya and to give the regime’s opponents a lifeline that may just be in time to prevent defeat. Some reports on Sunday night said the Libyan forces had again declared a unilateral cease fire, but by Monday morning the story seems to have vanished completely from reporting on the struggle.

Demonstrating an enthusiastic bravado, if not extensive hands-on military experience, one of the rebels, Fathi bin Saud told Reuters after seeing the wrecked tanks, “Gaddafi is like a chicken and the coalition is plucking his feathers so he can’t fly. The revolutionaries will slit his neck.”

The coalition’s air campaign continued through Sunday night. With the no-fly zone effectively in place, attacks are now more focused on disrupting Libyan government command and control capabilities with new attacks on Tripoli. By Monday morning, The New York Times was reporting the new mission had, “Moved beyond taking away his ability to use Libyan airspace, to obliterating his hold on the ground as well, allied officials said. Rebel forces, battered and routed by loyalist fighters just the day before, began to regroup in the east as allied warplanes destroyed dozens of government armoured vehicles near the rebel capital, Benghazi, leaving a field of burned wreckage along the coastal road to the city.

“By nightfall, the rebels had pressed almost 40 miles back west toward the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya, witnesses and rebel forces said. And they seemed to consolidate control of Benghazi despite heavy fighting there against loyalist forces on Saturday.”

Photo: Libyans hold a picture of their leader Muammar Gaddafi as they mourn during the funeral of the people who were killed after air strikes by coalition forces, at the martyrs’ cemetery in Tripoli March 20, 2011. Western forces pounded Libya’s air defences and patrolled its skies on Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a serious diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the “bombardment of civilians”. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

However, a few cracks have developed in the initial support for the UN Security Council’s no-fly zone resolution. Several Arab nations have requested world leaders not to call for regime change publicly, but rather to leave this up to the Libyan people. And there may be some confusion on the ultimate goals for Libya within the coalition as well.

As the NYT added: “All the deliberations over what military action to take against Muammar el-Gaddafi of Libya have failed to answer the most fundamental question: Is it merely to protect the Libyan population from the government, or is it intended to fulfil President Obama’s objective declared two weeks ago that Gaddafi ‘must leave’?”

While US vice admiral William Gortney said, “We are not going after Gaddafi,” the attack on the command and control facilities inside a sprawling Gaddafi compound on Sunday suggests the military strikes may now be targeted at threatening the Libyan government itself. But if Gaddafi’s regime is not toppled by air strikes, the question becomes: What’s next for this coalition? This will soon enough become more urgent since it took more than three weeks to establish the no-fly zone in the first place, once Libyan forces first fired on protesters. In that period, Gaddafi’s troops, bolstered by mercenaries, had pushed the rebels back from the fringes of Tripoli all the way to Benghazi and, as the air campaign began, were on the verge of taking that city as well.

And in the US itself inevitably some Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and house of representatives have begun criticising the Obama administration for its lack of clarity over its Libyan military aims – and the possibility that the campaign will be prolonged with uncertain results. Obama’s leftist political critics in his own party have already started questioning the constitutionality of US missile strikes against Libya, and one has even uttered the word “impeachment” during a Democratic caucus conference call on Saturday. Admittedly a minority of a minority, this leftist group can still cause trouble for the Obama administration as the campaign and its aftermath grinds on into the future.

These left-wing Democratic members “all strongly raised objections to the constitutionality of the president’s actions” said some Democratic lawmakers who were in on the joint phone call although Democratic Party leadership was not part of this conversation. But Republicans too are divided as well – with some voicing firm support for Obama, while others are questioning the longer strategic vision of this air campaign. As one congressman complained: “They consulted the Arab League. They consulted the United Nations. They did not consult the United States Congress. They’re creating wreckage, and they can’t obviate that by saying there are no boots on the ground. There aren’t boots on the ground; there are Tomahawks in the air.” Sounds like a little damage control is needed within the Democratic Party as soon as Obama is back in the White House from Latin America to keep his party colleagues in line.

Photo: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) greets Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa at the Elysee Palace ahead of international talks on Libya in Paris March 19, 2011. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Inevitably too, some think-tank members have started to mutter about the efficacy of the air strike campaign. Heather Hurlburt, a staffer at the National Security Network, a generally mainstream Democratic group, said, “There are expectations about how quickly this moves that are out of line with reality”, especially if this evolves into something more like the extended, problematic Kosovo air campaign than the quick strokes at the beginning of the Iraqi war (although given how the Iraqi war eventually dragged on as well, that may not be much of a consolation either). And Steve Clemons at the New America Foundation, yet another Democratic Party-aligned group, adds, “We’re in a situation now where I see a lot of downside risk and the chances of it going badly are high.”

On Sunday, the outgoing head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, briefly caused something more than a ripple of concern when it was reported he said military operations were going beyond what the Arab League had initially agreed to support. Moussa had said on Sunday, “What happened differs from the no-fly zone objectives…What we want is civilians’ protection not shelling more civilians.” The Arab League later reiterated its support for the UN-declared no-fly zone campaign, blaming the international media for taking earlier comments out of context. Concurrently, it is now being reported that aircraft from various Arab League nations are expected to join the campaign shortly.

While Moussa had apparently been reported as saying the air attacks had “led to the deaths and injuries of many Libyan civilians”, foreign reporters in Tripoli have been unable to find much evidence of initial Libyan claims of widespread civilian “collateral damage”. Some TV analysts suggested Moussa was on to some sort of double game as he had already announced he was prepared to run for the Egyptian presidency in upcoming elections there. As a result, speculation about Moussa’s motives centred on the possibility he was hoping his words would endear him to some factions of the Egyptian electorate.

Meanwhile, the South African government reiterated its earlier support for the no-fly zone and related efforts in the UN vote, saying: “… the United Nations and the Security Council could not be silent nor be seen to be doing nothing in the face of such grave acts of violence committed against innocent civilians.

“… by adopting this Resolution 1973; which South Africa has voted in favour(sic); the Security Council has responded appropriately to the call of the countries of the region to strengthen the implementation of Resolution 1970 and has acted responsibly to protect and save the lives of defenceless civilians who are faced with brutal acts of violence carried out by the Libyan authorities. The adoption of these additional measures including a ceasefire and no-fly zone as authorised by this Resolution; constitute an important element for the protection of civilians and the safety of the delivery of humanitarian assistance to those most vulnerable and those desperately in need of such assistance.

“We have supported the Resolution with the necessary caveats to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Libya; and rejecting any foreign occupation or unilateral military intervention under the pretext of protection of civilians. It is our hope that this Resolution will be implemented in full respect for both its letter and spirit.”

Arab backing for the no-fly zone had been critical last week to passage of the no-fly zone resolution at the UN. As a result, any Arab back-peddling from military efforts over Libya could make the campaign much more difficult to sustain over a longer period, analysts are already saying. US officials with Obama on his trip to South America, however, quickly rebutted Moussa’s comments, saying, “The resolution endorsed by Arabs and UNSC included ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians, which we made very clear includes, but goes beyond, a no-fly zone.”

Meanwhile, US and British warships and submarines launched more than 100 Tomahawk missiles against air defences around Tripoli and Misrata, said US military officials. They added American forces were working with Britain, France, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Denmark and Italy in “Odyssey Dawn” in missions over Libya. Meanwhile, aircraft from other countries, including Qatar, were headed towards Libya to participate in military operations as well.

Muammar Gaddafi has yet to make a public pronouncement about taking a long-term vacation soon in a great tourist spot like Venezuela. But one can always live in hope. DM

For more, read:

  • Arab League criticizes allied air strikes on Libya in the AP;
  • West’s strikes on Libya hit Arab League criticism in Reuters;
  • West backs off calls for Libya regime change as Gaddafi warns of ‘long war’ in the Christian Science Monitor;
  • Target in Libya Is Clear; Intent Is Not in the New York Times;
  • Allies Target gaddafi’s Ground Forces as Libyan Rebels Regroup in the New York Times;
  • Liberal Dems in uproar over Libya in Politico;
  • Drawn-out campaign risks damping down Arab spring in the Financial Times;
  • Airstrikes in Libya; Questions Back Home in the New York Times;
  • South Africa welcomes and supports the UN Security Council’s resolution on no fly zone in Libya, 18 March 2011 on DIRCO website.

Photo: A man reacts as others bury victims killed by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi mourn during his funeral in Benghazi March 20, 2011. Western forces pounded Libya’s air defences and patrolled its skies on Sunday, but their day-old intervention hit a serious diplomatic setback as the Arab League chief condemned the “bombardment of civilians”. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem.


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