Liberating the Libyans, Part IV – Stalemate

I’ve been meaning to comment on the Libyan situation for sometime, but have yet to have the opportunity and indeed the news keeps on becoming yet more depressing. The worst possible outcome now seems to have occurred, a bloody stalemate and a long drawn out conflict.
As I mentioned in a prior post there was a brief window of opportunity where a no-fly zone (or air strikes) could have worked. That window passed once Gaddafi flew in a load of mercenaries and used his airforce to halt the initial rebel advance. Since then he’s consolidated his hold on the rest of the country. Anyone in his government or military who hasn’t yet defected is unlikely to do so (in for a penny in for a pound and all that). The Libyan rebels have shown themselves to be brave but lacking in combat experience, training and above all else discipline or battlefield leadership. They are not up to the task. Even with NATO air cover its difficult to see them taking back the country.

Several options have been talked about in the press as to how this stalemate can be broken, we will investigate these one by one.

Option #1 – More air strikes. The problem here is, there’s not a lot left for them to bomb. All the really important targets (airbases, tanks, command and control facilities) have been destroyed. Going after any remaining targets will risk “collateral damage” (dead civilians). Aside from providing close air support to the rebels there’s not a lot else that NATO can do. And close air support is always a risky business, given the danger of bombing the wrong people by mistake. This has already happened and given the chaotic situation on the battlefield it’s a wonder he hasn’t happened more often.

Option #2 – Send in the SAS! Chances are they’re already there! Its likely special forces from NATO are actively working in Libya as forward air controllers to limit civilian casualties as well as maximise damage to Gaddafi’s forces from air strikes. However, aside from such cloak and dagger actions there’s not much these special forces can do. Libya is a desert country and inevitably the battlefield here is dominated by mobile warfare, i.e tanks, SPG’s, APC’s and IFV or indeed the “technicals” (a Toyota Hilux with a heavy cannon or recoilless rifle unit in the back). Names like Benghazi, Tobruk and Beda Fomm will of course be familiar to anyone who’s ever studied military history, as this was where the great tank battles of WW2 were fought, and they were fought here precisely because the Libyan desert is perfect tank country.
So it’s not so much boots on the ground that’s needed but tank threats on the ground. Deploying heavy armour is a slow and expensive process. You’d also need the support of the locals (which I don’t think would be forthcoming) and control of a port. Tanks on their own are useless (even in the desert) as they need a large body of infantry to support them (who are familiar with tank warfare and mounted in vehicles that can keep pace with the tanks). Tanks without fuel and ammunition aren’t much use, so an entire logistics and supply chain needs to be established.
Of course Gaddafi’s unlikely to bide his time waiting 4 months for the 1st cavalry to deploy their M1 Abram’s. No, he’ll throw everything he’s got at the rebels to try and win the war before NATO can build up its forces and start driving west. Thus the conflict would inevitably escalate substantially first. Also, there is no UN mandate for such a deployment, and I doubt any will be forthcoming. And I doubt the general public in the West (nevermind the Arab world) would support such a deployment, so by an large this is a non-starter.

Option #3 – Arm the rebels. This one falls down for some of the reasons mentioned above. The sort of hardware that would ultimately prove decisive, heavy weapons like tanks, APC’s and heavy artillery are not the sort of stuff you can put in the hands of amateurs, and sadly most of the Libyan rebels fall into this category. Poorly trained forces such as them wouldn’t be able to use such weaponry effectively and indeed the use of such weapons could greatly increase civilian casualties, so largely a non-starter until the rebels get a better trained army deployed, and that will take some time to organise.

Option #4 – Get Gaddafi! This option of course refers to “terminating Gaddafi’s command with extreme prejudice”……and I’m not talking the sort of “prejudice” prince Philip gets up to, no, much worse than that! Joke’s aside, the question is, would it make any difference? We’re assuming that Gaddafi’s in charge of his forces, and given that he’s clearly lost his marbles I’d argue that all the indication are that he’s not. The rest of his cronies, including his sons are likely calling the shots and they would carry on regardless in the event of his death. There is a slight chance that it could topple the regime, but its more likely it would simply inspire them to do much worse.
Meanwhile there is the legality of it. The UN resolution said nothing about assassinating head’s of state and I suspect it would not be considered legal under international law. Now for those of you who say, so what? The danger is that such an act would give the Gaddafi forces the moral high ground.

Option #5 – Muslim invasion. Another option is for the military of a neighbouring state to send its forces into the country. They could be invited in by the rebels, or use some pretext to declare war (i.e some of our citizens were killed by Gaddafi’s men). The Egyptians have a huge ground army, well trained too, and they could easily mop up and rout the Gaddafi forces within a few weeks, even without NATO air cover. The problem here of course is that nobody in Libya wants to be occupied by a foreign army, even one sent by a friendly Muslim neighbour. Also the neighbouring countries don’t want to be occupying Libya and, like the US in Iraq, spend the next 5 years refereeing roadside bombing competitions. And most of these countries have their own internal problems right now, so the chances of this happening are pretty low.

Option #6 – Smoke Gaddafi out with sanctions. This (along with the next) seems to be the only credible options left. Of course its precisely the option that nobody wants to see. It would take years for this one to take effect, meaning a long drawn out war. A long war means heavy casualties and an increased period of hardship and suffering for civilians. It means more economic disruption. Also it would require NATO to turn off the oil tap, i.e. blockade Gaddafi’s ports and prevent him shipping oil. As I pointed out in a previous post this would be fraught with problems. Not least of those one has to question whether the other OPEC countries have sufficient spare capacity to replace Libya’s output. Many would question whether this is the case (see my post here). Remember, up until now oil demand has been relatively low world wide as spring is a quiet time for oil demand. As we hit summer and the airline industry increases its demand for oil, and the US summer driving season starts up, there is a risk of a spike in oil prices and/or even oil shortages if OPEC can’t replace Libya’s output.
Also, we need to remember that it would still be possible for Gaddafi to smuggle the oil across his lengthy land borders with his neighbours. After the Iraq war Saddam was soon smuggling vast amounts of oil out of the country. Indeed the whole reason why sanctions were then lifted against Iraq is because they were becoming something of a joke and merely increasing the suffering of civilians. The same will likely apply in Libya. And even if sanctions could work Gaddafi is supposedly sitting on a vast sovereign wealth fund, more than enough to keep paying his mercenary army out his own cash/gold stockpiles for sometime to come.
And the longer the war goes on the more likely that civil government across the country will simply collapse. The worse case scenario? Another Somali, with the Libya collapsing into a perpetual cycle of tribal wars without end, right on the borders of Europe.

Option #7 – Compromise and a peace treaty. Really this seems to be one everyone is neglecting (for obvious reasons), but has to be taken seriously. While I doubt the olive branches coming out of Tripoli are anything other than a stalling tactic to buy time, and one doesn’t find it the least bit acceptable to make peace deals with loony dictators, this is the one option that could end the war tomorrow. As always the devils in the detail of any agreement. Some form of free and fair elections is likely to be asking too much, but something that prevents Gaddafi and his cronies hanging onto power indefinitely seems logical. Equally the rebels would need to accept that Gaddafi and his allies are going to not loose power anytime soon (thought a guarantee on the safety of civilians and an amnesty for all arrested would be the price for it) and will likely need to be given immunity from prosecution after ceding power. Unsavoury yes, but it’s the only option that doesn’t involve a long drawn out conflict as above.
Of course one could say that this last option is so unpalatable that the previous option is preferable. However, let’s not kid ourselves as the consequences of such a choice.

Option #8 – A Palace Coup. This option combines several of the above, thought isn’t really one anybody in the West can take, nor the rebels. Its more a case of exploiting an opportunity that arises. It would involve some of those backing up Gaddafi realising that the writings on the wall, the Rebels aren’t going to pack up and go home, Gaddafi’s not going to back down (and he’s off his tits) and the longer the war continues the worse off everybody is. So they “depose” of Gaddafi and his other cronies, cease power, then negotiate a peace treaty. Of course a messy compromise, granting said forces immunity from prosecution for example, if indeed not safe passage to a friendly country where they can live out their lives in safety comfort (via the proceeds of a large Swiss bank account). Unsavoury and distasteful, but if it ends the war quickly without the minimum of casualties, its one that might have to be accepted.
Unfortunately, the chances of this happening are currently slim. It would require an extended war (and sanctions) to push those behind Gaddafi…into pushing him over the edge of a balcony!

Either way, no satisfactory outcome, no silver bullet solution, is forthcoming. The only thing we can do is to resolve not to let this happen again. We need to take a harsher line against dictatorships, stop cosying up to them for the benefits of short term gain, and get the Chinese to realise that doing the same is bad for them in the long run too (dictators have a nasty habit of bitting the hand that fed them and when overthrown the new regime usually punishes those who supported the dictatorship). But for Libya right now, there is no clear exit strategy.

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