Analysis: Outside aid for Libya rebels hinges on aims, will
LONDON (Reuters) - Even at this late hour the outside world could do much to prevent more bloodshed in Libya provided it agrees precise aims and forges a collective will.
With Muammar Gaddafi's tanks and heavy guns advancing on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the opposition is urging the West to act now to rescue the Arab world's most violently resisted pro-democracy revolt.
There is no dearth of ideas from Western strategists anxious to avert a devastating siege or bombardment of the kind the international community witnessed in Sarajevo and Grozny.
Proposals include various sorts of no-fly and no-drive zones, a maritime exclusion zone, jamming army communications and giving rebels intelligence help.
Some also propose arming, equipping and financing the opposition, and sending special forces advisers to help rebel fighters improve tactics and organization.
But it is not clear which of these, is any, is on the menu of Western military planners because Western governments have yet to define their aims beyond protecting civilian life.
U.S. CHANGE OF TONE
In the absence of clear objectives, it is impossible to say whether world powers have any prospect of gaining U.N. backing for stepped up international action, analysts say.
Bruised by costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is queasy about any risk of "mission creep," fearing a quagmire involving foreign forces would be portrayed by Gaddafi as Western bullying.
Italy has set its face against outside armed intervention. Other powers like Russia and China dislike initiatives involving an expansion of Western military influence.
But prospects of action rose on Wednesday when senior U.S. diplomat Susan Rice suggested Washington was warming to the idea of a foreign military role.
Rice, ambassador to the United Nations, said to protect civilians the U.N. Security Council should "contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no-fly zone."
It was a marked change of tone, but Shashank Joshi, a UK-based military analyst, said it was not clear whether it was driven by a considered shift in strategy or merely by panic.
STRAGEGY? OR DESPERATION?
"Are they just doing this out of desperation, to avert a collapse? Those sorts of aims are anathema to military commanders because they imply open-ended commitments," he said.
Analysts say that to have any hope of international support Washington must urgently clarify its objectives. At the same time it must preserve an Arab consensus on the need for action.
Long a byword for indecision and disunity, the Arab League surprised many on Saturday by agreeing to ask the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on Libya, giving a regional seal of approval that NATO has said is vital for any military action.
British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said Britain was urging the world "to follow the lead of those like the Arab League who have said this is something we need locally."
"The urgency is very great."
But is the aim to preserve the eastern port of Benghazi, Libya's second city, as an opposition bastion, thereby averting the reprisals that would follow a government takeover?
Or, analysts ask, is it a long-term commitment to help the rebels to stage an eventual counter-attack to take the capital Tripoli and topple Gaddafi?
There is uncertainty, too, over rebel military clout. So far outgunned, the rebels may be at their strongest around Benghazi.
Barak Seener, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Reuters he believed the rebels wanted to attract Gaddafi's forces to Benghazi "to make a huge counter-offensive, as all their best weapons and resources are there."
"What they are trying to do is get Gaddafi to overstretch and then beat his forces back," he said, adding that not helping the rebels would be to allow a "genocide."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday the sooner the United Nations could reach an agreement on Libya the better and that NATO was ready to help.
"Time is of the essence, time is rapidly running out, but I don't think it's too late. Very much will depend on the U.N. Security Council decision," he said in Warsaw.
Douglas Barrie, an aerospace expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the size of the U.N. and NATO hampered fast and coherent policy-making but that a no-fly zone could still be effective on its own terms.
"If NATO were to mount some kind of mission, probably likely to be limited to coastal regions ... it might take 10 -14 days to get this up and running from a decision," he told Reuters.
But many analysts say a no-fly zone is of questionable relevance, since much of Gaddafi's advance appears to have been made possible more by concentrated artillery and tank fire than by comparatively infrequent air attacks.
"TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE"
Faysal Itani, deputy head of north Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, said outside help for the rebels could "at the very least" produce a prolonged stalemate around Benghazi that would allow time for the opposition to gain strength.
Itani said he expected Egypt, Libya's neighbor to the east and a natural supply route for Benghazi, would play a major role as a conduit rather than as a provider of weapons and money.
"You're looking as places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who have plenty of weapons and money. That material would probably go through Egypt."
"What Gaddafi will probably do is bomb them so hard that they intimidate the population into surrendering. But it's going to be a lot messier for Gaddafi's troops from now on," he said.
"Benghazi is a very different game than the one they have been playing along the coast, where the army has been fighting on open ground, which does not favor insurgent tactics."
Shadi Hamid of the Doha Brookings Center said meaningful action would require a full-scale arming of the rebels and the creation a bufferzone around Benghazi.
"That's a very intricate and challenging proposition at this point and it would take considerable international commitment over a long period of time," he said.
He doubted whether a consensus existed for tough action.
"If the political will is there, Gaddafi wouldn't stand a chance," he said.
"But this is a textbook example of too little, too late."
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels)
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this