BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Western bombing campaign in Libya is now in its sixth week but despite a series of eye-catching NATO initiatives there is little sign of a decisive military shift that will bring a quick end to the war.
And there are few signs either of significant divisions within Muammar Gaddafi’s government that would hasten a political solution to the conflict.
NATO, which took over the air campaign from a coalition led by France, Britain and the United States a month ago, can point to some successes in protecting civilian populations in eastern Libya from attack including in Benghazi and Ajdabiyah.
But the siege of Misrata continues and the commander of the NATO operation, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, conceded on Tuesday that the alliance had yet to remove the threat posed to civilians by Gaddafi’s forces.
In the past week, a broadening of NATO’s bombing campaign to strikes on Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound, Washington’s announcement that it was deploying armed drones, and the withdrawal of government forces from central Misrata, might suggest the start of a shift away from a military stalemate.
But analysts say these moves in part reflect a practical reality -- that an initial air campaign has run out of clear, purely military targets that are easy to hit without endangering civilians -- and the need for Western governments to maintain support for the effort by showing they are making a difference.
“Militarily, the fact is, the situation is not much different from what it was at the very beginning of the war,” said French strategic analyst Francois Heisbourg.
“Gaddafi is essentially controlling the same territory as he was at the beginning of the war, so he is not likely to leave power readily as part of a negotiated deal. So from the standpoint of the coalition it’s not a great result.”
Shashank Joshi of London’s Royal United Services Institute said Gaddafi had shown himself a more adaptable and flexible adversary than the Western powers would have hoped.
“His forces have adapted extremely well,” Joshi said.
While there had been an escalation of the political aims of the Western mission, given the statement this month by the leaders of France, Britain and the United States pledging to continue the military campaign until Gaddafi gives up power, there was less sign of a stepping up of the military effort, Joshi said.
”People are synthesizing the bombing of Gaddafi’s compound and the introduction of drones and advisers to say this is an escalation. These are all incremental and will not make a difference in themselves.
“It’s actually a new way to compensate for the slowing of airstrikes,” he said, referring to a decline in air activity since NATO took over the operation and the United States stepped back from an overt front-line role.
Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform think tank said that despite NATO denials, it did appear the key alliance powers -- France, Britain and the United States -- were seeking a way around the Gaddafi dilemma by targeting him directly.
”NATO’s official mandate doesn’t involve removing Gaddafi from power, so the commanders would deny it and say they are going after communications posts and such, but to me it does smell that they are going after Gaddafi personally.
“That would mean a gap between what NATO collectively says it wants to do and what the French, the British and Americans say. That’s going to be a tough issue internally and it seems bound to create tensions within NATO,” he said.
Nick Witney of the European Council on Foreign Relations said French, British and U.S. leaders had put pressure on themselves by declaring their mission to be regime change.
“Unfortunately that’s something that cannot be achieved by bombing,” he said. “There should be no particular time pressure on this, but you have to accept a war aim of disengagement, ceasefire and negotiations. It’s a mistake to conflate military action and regime change.”
Valasek said the fact that Britain, France and Italy were sending in military advisers showed they were aware they were unlikely to succeed quickly.
“It speaks of a long-term strategy,” he said. “They have a dilemma: there’s no end to the war without an end to the Gaddafi regime. And short of turning the rebels into a proper fighting force and supporting them from the air, there is no good way of forcing Gaddafi to resign.”
Any progress so far had been marginal, he said.
“To use a tug-of-war analogy, you are talking about a few inches left and right,” he said. “They’re still a mile way from the ultimate political end goal of removing Gaddafi from power.”
Editing by Rex Merrifield