Analysis: Libya escalation may not tip balance quickly

BRUSSELS Tue May 24, 2011 11:00am EDT

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Plans to send attack helicopters to Libya and intensified bombing of Tripoli reflect growing Western worries that the war is dragging on indecisively but may not be enough to tip the balance quickly.

On Tuesday, NATO warplanes hammered Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's compound with their heaviest air strikes yet on Tripoli after the United States said he would "inevitably" be forced from power.

But despite early optimism that Western intervention would quickly help topple Gaddafi, after three months of fighting and two months of Western airstrikes, there is little evidence to suggest his government is on the verge of collapse.

Reflecting growing Western frustration, France announced on Monday that it and Britain would deploy attack helicopters to achieve more accurate strikes on Gaddafi's forces -- though Britain on Tuesday it has yet to decide on such a move.

Analysts say deploying helicopters would mark a significant escalation as well as an increase in risk, as while they would make it easier to hit urban or embedded targets with precision, they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire.

"Starting with the introduction of military advisers, the introduction of drones onto the bombing of Tripoli, it reflects a movement up the ladder of escalation," said Shashank Joshi of London's Royal United Services Institute think tank.

"It shows France and Britain are increasingly concerned about this hardening from the stalemate that exists presently into something intractable.

"What's guiding them is a real fear of it degenerating into the Iraqi no-fly zone of the 1990s in which they committed to indefinite open-ended expensive operations because of their own moral and political commitment to the rebels."

Military analysts French Tigre and Gazelle helicopters, and the U.S.-built Apache flown by the British, would be a big help in protecting rebel areas such as Misrata.

"The downside is helicopters flying at comparatively low level are at greater risk, especially to shoulder-fired

missiles which fixed-wing aircraft have been lying well out of the range of," said Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

RISK OF CASUALTIES, CAPTURE

Until now, the NATO-led effort in Libya has suffered no combat casualties, and the main concern of Western governments has been to justify the mounting costs of the mission at a time of economic austerity, which has already ensured that the United States has taken a backseat.

Deploying helicopters not only increases the risk of casualties, but also the possibility of crews being taken prisoner if they are shot down, helping to explain why they were not used earlier in the campaign.

"You may imagine there were people in various governments hoping that attacking the regime's command-and-control infrastructure, heavy artillery and air force was going be enough to make Gaddafi leave power," Barrie said.

"That was always optimistic. He hasn't hung around for 42 years without being bombed on a couple of occasions and he shows no inclination to leave the country as of yet."

While the two-dozen helicopters envisaged may not end up being game-changers in themselves, they would ratchet up the pressure on Gaddafi and give psychological boost to the rebels.

"A helicopter in your operations area is a more-or-less continuous presence. It has a coercive effect on opposing forces and conversely should bolster morale of the rebels," Barrie said.

Joshi said it would also be an important demonstration of Western resolve.

"The psychological side of this is significant and in line with the bombing of Tripoli," he said.

"Bombing Tripoli says the war will be taken to Tripoli -- you are not exempt, and the helicopters say we are willing to take great risks and our resolve is not to be taken lightly."

At the same time, as time ticks on Western leaders will see themselves under mounting pressure.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in parliament on Tuesday: "I can assure you that our will is to ensure that the mission in Libya does not last longer than a few months."

Analysts point to the run-up to elections in France and in Libya's neighbor Egypt and time limits set by some NATO states on their participation in the mission, and well as concerns in Britain about mounting costs at a time of defense cuts.

Some Egyptian election candidate will inevitably seek to win support by criticizing NATO's intervention in an Arab country and the more the campaign goes on the greater the risk of it becoming detached from its original Arab support base.

"This is not something that's going to be finished in weeks. Diplomatically, politically, economically and militarily the regime is not strong, but it's strong enough to endure," Joshi said.

"NATO is very strong, but not strong enough to land the decisive blow, so this can go on well into the summer. There isn't a concrete deadline by which it needs to be wrapped up, but there is a sort of looming anxiety that this could drag on."

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Comments (3)
arthurro wrote:
I am outraged at the hubris of the Western powers. “Protecting civilians” through a “no fly zone” has morphed into bombing the hell out of the country’s infrastructure and attempting to assassinate its leader through air strikes. Regime change 2.0. And who are these civilians we are protecting? Armed insurgents. If an armed insurgent group attacked Chicago or New York would the US government not be justied in using “violence” to put it down? But its a different standard for the demonized “monster” Qaddafi. The fig leaf of Nato and the US is getting more and more transparent. Could this perhaps be about global domination and geostrategic control of oil resources rather than protecting civilians?

May 24, 2011 1:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
ushivon wrote:
The French and Brits are behaving worse than they claim Gaaddafi behaves. They are terrorising the innocent population of Tripoli for enjoying their leader. The Western gand has wanted the death of Gaddafi and his family from the start. Gaddafi has sought to protect his country from the West and the rebels who lets see are in this together and alwayss were. The rebels have sold their souls for gain and hatred, not to mention selling out thier countrymen and country to a western invasion. The rebels from top to bottom and the blood and oil leeches of the West are not nice, thy wesr a thin stocking of humanitarianism over thier faces but it is so transparent, nobody believes it. Unfortunately we are made to believe the endless villification of Gaddafi after decades of it and this intense burst over the past months. The rebels are worse than rats to do this to their country and people, the West are bully warmongers unacquainted with integrity or justice and the rebel thugs are dangerous violent rascist criminals, the world would be a better place without them all and the loss of Gaddafi would be a blow to Africa and her people aswell as to Libya. Gaddafi is irreplaceable, he is a challenge to the bought Western men and an inspiration for freedom. Rebels have paid to have freedom taken from Libya and Libyans with their trechery which was never warranted!

May 24, 2011 1:13pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
txgadfly wrote:
Why is the USA involved in Libya? It is a French and British concern. We should not even be sending munitions, except for cash. Enough! Out of MENA now. All of it.

May 29, 2011 4:40pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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