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Libyan army “could continue fighting for weeks”

A rebel fighter rests outside of Ajdabiya, in north eastern Libya on Monday Reuters

Moammar Gaddafi retains enough military might to resist the international intervention for several weeks or even months, according to a Swiss military expert.

Alexandre Vautravers, editor of the Swiss Military Review and head of the international relations department at Webster University in Geneva, tells the Libyan army still has significant strength in numbers of tanks, assault vehicles, weapons and troops.

After three nights of air strikes, discord about the aims of the mission amongst its allied leaders is intensifying, and it is proving harder than expected to establish relations with the leaders of the rebel-led National Transitional Council.

There was a lot of wishful thinking about this rebellion, according to Vautravers, who points out that popular support for the uprising is not comparable to what was seen in Tunisia or Egypt. The most favourable estimates say that only about 35 per cent of the population has actually rebelled against the Gaddafi regime. The US says the mission to destroy Gaddafi’s air defences and impose the no-fly zone is nearly completed. What happens next?

Alexandre Vautravers: The US military command has said that since the first bombs were dropped over Libya, there have been no aerial or ship movements by the Libyan armed forces. [But] military aviation has never played a decisive role in the attacks against the Libyan population. The harm that was really perpetrated against the population was done by other types of weapons – shelling from boats or artillery or heavy weapons – rather than by aviation. There is a bit of misunderstanding about what this no-fly zone was intended to achieve. Gaddafi loyalists are continuing to attack towns in Western Libya, in particular Misrata and Zintan. Can the rebels effectively fight back without the support of ground troops?

A.V.: There are two very different kinds of forces that are fighting each other. The Libyan military is a relatively coordinated armed force. Certainly for a number of weeks it can continue fighting at the rate it is now. The Libyan military has very substantial stocks of military equipment, weapons kits and an arsenal of munitions. It has some 2,200 battle tanks, over 1,000 infantry fighting vehicles. The troops also have very frequent rotations. The mercenaries come from a number of tribes in sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco or from Eastern Europe and have the same kind of turnover. The troops are not going to be worn down in one or two months, they are rather going to be strengthened by their fighting experience. The rebellion has managed to seize a number of military weapons, barracks and munitions depots. But they don’t have the coordination or training, or the command and control capabilities. How important are relations with the National Transitional Council (NTC)?

A.V.: I think that establishing a relationship between Western forces and these combatants has proven more difficult than was originally planned. The NTC is made up of people who don’t necessarily have a very recommendable track record either. We are talking about different tribes, about a different part of the country. Some people have referred to this more as a ‘coup d’état’ than a proper revolution. The relationship or the contacts that have been made with this council or with rebel fighters have been laborious at best. Should the ultimate goal of the intervention be to remove Gaddafi? What is the risk of stalemate if he isn’t removed?

A.V.: A lot of people will have very strong words about a UN resolution to protect the population against human rights abuses, against military attacks on unarmed civilians and so on. The problem is that when you have to get down to business and get your hands dirty a lot of countries have second thoughts. There is a kind of hypocrisy around the question of humanitarian military intervention or the responsibility to protect. The person who has best captured this is President Obama by saying you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Obama says that the US will cede power to a British or French-led NATO coalition “within days”. How do you think this will play out?

A.V.: I find it fascinating that so much is being talked about with regards to this coordination because it’s really a non-issue. The command and coordination is Nato. It may not have the Nato logo on it but for all purposes concerned it is a Nato operation. Even the planning to a great extent has been done by Nato staff. But on the questions of leadership, different countries have different aims or interpretations of the mandates. The confusion at the political level about the aim of the mission implies that there is no exit-strategy. Can we define an exit strategy at this point?

A.V.: The exit strategy is going to be similar to many kinds of humanitarian interventions. We have seen this in Iraq and in Afghanistan where the US has gone in, handed over to Nato then to the European Union, then handing it over to a coalition of forces then handing it over to the local authorities. Most probably there will be this type of cascade that is going to take place. How important is the role of the Arab League in the intervention?

A.V.: The Arab league of today is a very different kind of institution and may not speak with as much as a unified voice as it did ten years ago. The situation of many of these governments and regimes has changed. The links with  western powers and international organisations are yet to be established by many of these transitional regimes. I’m not sure that we can expect to have a firm stance on the part of the Arab League in this situation. The Qataris have sent six aircraft which are now based in Cyprus, completely out of the way. It is a very symbolic presence. The United Arab Emirates has committed ships and transport aircraft and they are interested in being supportive of the humanitarian action.  

February 17: Following the arrest of a human rights campaigner, anti-government protesters based mainly in Benghazi call for “day of rage”. Protests calling for Moammar Gaddafi to step down quickly spread to other cities.

February 21: Violent clashes between pro- and anti-government forces intensify, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Gaddafi refuses to step down. His son, Saif al-Islam appears on television and warns the country could descend into civil war. Protesters seize control of Benghazi.


February 24: United Nations Human Rights Council calls for  Libya’s suspension from the council.

February 26: United Nations Security Council passes resolution 1970 calling for sanctions and an arms embargo against Libya. 1970 also calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Libyan authorities against its citizens.

Fierce fighting continues in several Libyan towns. Gaddafi retains his stronghold on the capital, Tripoli.

March13: Pro-Gaddafi troops defeat rebels to regain control of strategic oil port of Brega.

March 17: UN Security Council passes resolution 1973 “to take all necessary measures” to protect civilians and calling for a no-fly zone over Libya.

March 19: International forces, led by France, Britain and the US, commence airstrikes on Libya.   

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