Libya: a win for NATO

A rebel fighter mans a makeshift checkpoint in Tripoli. AAP

Despite confusion in recent hours about exactly who the Libyan rebels have captured, it is clear that the Gaddafi regime has been severely weakened by the weekend advance into central Tripoli.

This advance and the corresponding upsurge in NATO airstrikes mean it is highly unlikely that the remaining Gaddafi forces will be able to defeat the rebels.

The Conversation spoke with Monash University expert Ben Macqueen about the role of the Western alliance in supporting the Libyan rebels and whether the West, after the disaster of Iraq and the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan, can claim a much needed military victory.

Did NATO end up acting as the rebels’ airforce and navy?

Yes. UN Resolution 1973 legitimised that. It was about targeting the Gaddafi regime’s artillery which was their big asset in the initial push because they had that greater range.

The use of an air force in that kind of combat operation would be a very similar thing. It shifted strategic balance to a more symmetrical dynamic.

There were many reports of NATO aircraft flying close air support missions to support rebel advances. Isn’t that in violation of the UN mandate?

A lot of it depends on how the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle is interpreted. You could certainly run that argument if you looked at R2P as only targeting Libyan forces that were [actively] shelling a civilian area.

The NATO argument is that it needed to undercut the very strategic capacity of the Libyan army to conduct these operations in the first place.

Part of that would have been playing into looking at this National Transitional Council which was recognised by a number of governments as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Thus, protecting them was protecting their armed force which was exercising a sovereign right.

You can run the argument that [NATO actions violated the UN resolution] but it really all rests on how the interpretation of protection is unpacked.

For the close air support to work,would there need to be Western troops on the ground acting as spotters and the like?

It depends on the communication. If the effectiveness of the communication was there, then potentially not. But also in the preparatory stage they probably would have had to have at least some representation on the ground to establish who the people are that NATO can communicate with, what mode that communication comes in, how that is filtered down to the troops, how the troops react.

There would have had to have been some presence. The question then goes to was it a military presence? If it wasn’t a military presence it could have been former military personel acting in a civilian capacity which wouldn’t have violated the provisions of [Resolutions] 1970 and 1973.

If it was military on the ground as when we had reports of the British SAS and there were some reports of a few French special forces parachuting in, then that certainly would have been a violation.

But if the lines of communication were established and the protocols established then you could have run things off shore. The AWACS planes can go in and get the lay of the land and communicate that to NATO command operating out of Malta and then communicating that to the groups in Libya.

The rebels from the west of the country like Misrata and the mountains seem militarily more capable than eastern forces around Benghazi.

As a general people from the east had been excluded from upper levels of state administration and that would have included the military. The guys from the west would have been the recipients of potentially greater training but also the guys who defected from the Libyan army were likely from that region and returned to that region.

There is also a different geography, particularly in the far west where it does get a bit more mountainous than the east which is a lot flatter. It is an easier area from which to conduct operations. The artillery was effective in the east. It was like General Rommel style World War II actions, it was more like a naval battle where it was all about range of artillery.

Whereas in the west it was slightly more mountain guerrilla style operations. You also had the added element in the west of the Tuareg/Berber population south of the coast were active in the uprising as well and they traditionally have a militaristic heritage.

There is a division there and this something that in the long term these divisions are going to be really tricky to manage because these groups will see themselves as having different stakes in what comes up. It will be a point of tension.

A new military will emerge: who claims the victory and the credit for having the nous to do it? In broader terms, is power going to be distributed along these lines as well? There are still plenty of questions to be answered in that regard?

Is this a template for future Western military action?

Yes. If you look at it in brass tacks terms, this is mission accomplished for NATO. There was the stated aim of protecting the civilians and facilitating the uprising to get rid of the regime which most by the end, if not all, of the NATO have stopped recognising.

They haven’t lost any lives. They have spent a fair bit of cash and pushed the limits of international law but they did it through a UN mandate. It is actually setting the UN up for some pretty big adventures if they are going to be running things under R2P.

If you brought onto the menu every state that violates the principle of protecting their own civilians, you’ve got a pretty big running sheet. The mechanics of how it was run I would think will serve as a template.

You do have to factor in the very specific nature of how it happened in Libya with a smaller population. They don’t have massive urban areas. There was a well financed but fairly small military on the part of the Libyan government, quite open terrain and general international consensus. Gaddafi was quite exceptional in his eccentricities.

All these things played in, but this will definitely be some sort of precedent for how actions might be taken in the future. I can’t see them replicating it verbatim in somewhere like Syria. But this was implemented and it worked, so they can claim it as a victory.