This is a guest note by Daniel R. DePetris, an MA Candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where he studies security issues and Middle Eastern affairs. He is an associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis and blogs at the Atlantic Sentinel.
Muammar al-Qaddafi may be down, but he is certainly not out. This is the perception that is currently floating in the minds of NATO leaders as the humanitarian intervention in Libya reaches its fourth month.
Libyan army and government officials may be gradually resigning their positions and joining the opposition’s side, but Qaddafi and his family still find themselves in control of their own destiny. And with rebel forces and Qaddafi loyalists in the midst of a tit-for-tat battle in western Libya, politicians in the United States and Western Europe are starting to get antsy about the entire endeavor.
Of course, the NATO mission is not a total failure at this point. Eight senior military officials, including five commanders, threw up their hands in surrender and defected to Italy last week. Qaddafi’s youngest son, Saif al-Arab, was killed in an airstrike in April, sending a message to the Libyan strongman that his family members are just as susceptible to NATO military might (unfortunately, a few of Qaddafi’s grandchildren were killed in the same attack). What is left of Libya’s command-and-control systems are getting increasingly worn down by persistent NATO bombing runs, and an escalating barrage of air strikes was recently conducted over the skies of the capital city. A total of 60 bombs were dropped in Tripoli on Tuesday, June 7 alone. The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court has recently asked for an arrest warrant on Qaddafi to bring him to justice for his crimes against the Libyan people over the past forty years. Qaddafi is clearly feeling the heat.
So why, after four months of the world’s most powerful militaries going after him and his family, is Qaddafi still around? Part of the answer, as Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman suggest, is political.
The countries leading the mission- the United States, Great Britain, and France- have to justify their actions to a domestic audience in order to sustain popular support for the Libyan operation, while Qaddafi can hide in his bunker and blend in with his own civilians.
Qaddafi clearly sees the ambivalence on the face of President Obama and his national security team. Indeed, their hands are tied: striking Libyan government targets from the air is essentially the only option the United States and its NATO partners have with regards to offensive operations. At a time when the United States is trying to withdraw troops from Iraq and tone down a fluid and effective insurgency in Afghanistan, the American people would downright refuse, or at the least be very hesitant, to support an escalation that places American soldiers on Libyan soil. A third military conflict is something that Washington, and especially the Obama administration, does not need at the moment. Such sentiment is even higher in Europe, where an aversion to war has been a safe position for politicians to have, especially after an Iraq campaign that is widely seen on the Continent as a debacle.
But there are another variables at play that explains Qaddafi’s survival after months of heavy bombardment. First and foremost is the fact that NATO still does not have a clear and consistent mission statement. At the outset, the opening salvos of the operation were based on a humanitarian justification, designed to persuade Russia and China to abstain from the final vote. Fearing the imminent slaughter of thousands of innocent Libyan civilians in Benghazi at the hands of Qaddafi’s military forces, the UN Security Council decided to approve military action in order to save those lives.
As the fighting intensified, President Barack Obama outlined much the same rationale to the American people in his defense for joining the international coalition:
Confronted by this brutal repression and a looming humanitarian crisis, I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. European allies declared their willingness to commit resources to stop the killing. The Libyan opposition and the Arab League appealed to the world to save lives in Libya. And so at my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass a historic resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.
Yet since that speech, the very nature of the fighting has changed markedly on both sides. What was once a no-fly-zone operation designed to protect Libyan civilians on the ground evolved into a traditional air war against Qaddafi’s government. Sensing that his survival was at stake, Qaddafi responded by blended his security forces into populated areas, in effect daring NATO and making their mandate all the more difficult. Armed Qaddafi supporters continue to transport themselves to the battle lines in civilian vehicles to this day. Three months in, loyalist forces continue to target civilians and cities controlled by the opposition, especially the Western Libyan city of Misurata, are being shelled. While the organization will never admit it publicly, NATO is finding it virtually impossible to distinguish civilians from combatants in the middle of this type of warfare.
The main problem for NATO is that the current strategy, while effective in destroying Libyan government installations and convincing some top officials to switch sides, is not having a similar effect on Qaddafi’s hard-core elite. An arms embargo on Libya, the freeze of Libyan government assets, and economic sanctions are putting a dent on Qaddafi’s checkbook, yet not nearly fast enough to solicit universal domestic support for the mission.
Meanwhile, President Obama is having trouble with the mission back home, with the United States Senate getting impatient with the administration’s refusal to solicit congressional approval for the air war. Lawmakers remain in the dark on how long it will take before the operation is successful, and how much money will be needed in order to maintain the current pace of the bombardment. Just this past week, the United States House of Representatives approved a non-binding resolution, by a vote of 268 to 145, expressing criticism of the Obama administration’s presumed avoidance of the War Powers Act. The fact that the resolution was endorsed by congressmen on all sides, from anti-war Democrats to hard-right Republicans, is an illustration of how serious the US Congress views the issue. Indeed, the American public appears to agree with Congress’s interpretation: a CNN poll finds that 55 percent of Americans believe that Congress, rather than the president, should have final authority to expand the Libyan conflict. Considering that the President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief, this poll should serve as a dire warning to the Obama administration that they are either failing to communicate their position to the American people or are losing the public’s confidence.
Muammar al-Qaddafi may be a dictator who has lost his credibility among his own citizens, isolated from the international community, his compound destroyed, with NATO bombers flying overhead. But his enemies in NATO are also weighed down with a significant amount of pressure. If the stalemate on the ground continues, it may be NATO instead of Qaddafi that has to explain themselves the most.
NATO needs to change the balance of power in Libya, and fast. All Qaddafi and his relatives need to do is prolong the fighting and wait for public opinion in the west to sour.
– Daniel R. DePetris