After 2 months, no end in sight to Libyan air campaign

McClatchy NewspapersMay 17, 2011 

WASHINGTON — On March 19, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's army had quashed weeks of anti-government protests and was poised for an all-out assault on Benghazi, the opposition's stronghold, when the U.N. Security Council authorized coalition forces to step in and protect civilians.

Two months and nearly 7,000 air sorties later, the international military campaign has stopped a potentially devastating massacre in Benghazi, allowed humanitarian aid into besieged civilian areas and helped the rebels keep their hold on eastern Libya.

But Gadhafi, hunkered down in his heavily fortified bastion in the western capital, Tripoli, betrays no sign of ceding power. His loyalists, though weakened, continue to bombard the opposition's scattered outposts in the west.

When the United States and its European and Arab allies launched the air war, President Barack Obama said that U.S. forces would carry out "a limited military action ... to protect Libyan civilians." Today that military effort continues under NATO command, but with no coalition nation willing to commit ground forces or substantially more firepower, there's no clear end in sight.

"The air campaign has prevented a bad thing from happening. But it's done nothing to resolve the issue of whether Gadhafi stays or goes," said Paul Hughes, a retired Army colonel who's now with the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a research center.

Some members of Congress say that the war has become a stalemate, but the Obama administration maintains that the intervention has worked. White House officials say that it's bought the inexperienced Libyan opposition time to get organized while the United States and its allies weigh how much more direct support to offer.

"I think it's important to recall how much has been accomplished in less than two months, in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe, in rallying a remarkable political and military coalition, in mobilizing pressure on the Gadhafi regime and working with emerging democratic forces in Libya," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

In Washington last week, Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister of the rebels' governing council, pleaded with White House officials and congressional leaders to release Libyan assets that have been frozen by sanctions against Gadhafi's regime.

Obama administration officials are exploring what Steinberg called "a targeted unfreezing" of Libyan government money to benefit the rebels, but current proposals fall far short of the $3 billion that Jibril estimates the rebels need to finance their operations over the next six months.

"I don't want to be overstating the fact that it's our money. It's Libyan money," Jibril said. "We're not asking for financial assistance from anybody."

No amount of money, however, seems likely to help the ragtag rebels break the military impasse. Gadhafi controls most of western Libya, including the main border crossing into Tunisia and a remote desert outpost near Algeria, while the rebels hold most of the east, the western coastal town of Misrata and the sparsely populated Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli.

The rebel's ad hoc ranks of civilians and army defectors have tenuous supply lines, minimal contact with Benghazi and, their commanders acknowledge, little hope of advancing on Tripoli.

Qatar and some European nations are helping to train the rebel force while the United States provides as much as $25 million in "nonlethal" boots, tents, rations and other supplies, but the rebels still suffer from a sizable firepower gap, experts said.

"Based on the history of how air campaigns work, there's going to have to be a dynamic change in the ground forces," Hughes said. "Until that happens, the air campaign can continue but it won't ... be decisive."

Jibril said, however, that the increased pace of NATO airstrikes and the rebels' ability to repel weeks of withering pro-Gadhafi assaults on Misrata were gradually encouraging protests in Tripoli, where regime forces so far have been able to keep a lid on dissent.

Over the past week, demonstrations have bubbled up in the Souq al Jumaa district of the capital, and Jibril said that rebel supporters briefly had raised Libya's pre-Gadhafi tricolor flag — the symbol of the uprising — above the Mitiga airbase in eastern Tripoli.

"Tripoli is boiling," he said.

A Libyan named Housam, who fled the capital in late April, said in an interview that protesters there were resorting to guerrilla tactics: attaching Gadhafi's picture to dogs' tails, for example, and painting cats and chickens in the rebel colors and letting them run loose in the streets. One man draped himself in the rebel flag and confronted regime forces near Gadhafi's residence in Bab al Aziziya; when soldiers chased the man into a narrow alleyway, they were ambushed and killed by rebels.

Housam, who asked that his full name be withheld to shield his family from reprisals, said that gas lines were growing and some residents had to sleep in their cars overnight in order to fill up their tanks. In a sign of growing unrest, three men were killed in shootouts at gas lines, he said.

There are faint signs that Gadhafi's grip on Tripoli could weaken. This week, prosecutors of the International Criminal Court asked judges to issue arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son and brother-in-law, while the chief of the British armed forces called for NATO members to expand the range of bombing targets to include Gadhafi's infrastructure, not just military targets.

"We do know that there were widespread demonstrations in Tripoli that were put down violently, but we don't know if the regime has significant remaining support in the areas under its control," said Michael Hanna, a Middle East scholar at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research center.

The rebels, meanwhile, have "done a fairly credible job of administering Benghazi, and we have not seen a security vacuum emerge," Hanna said.

The combination of the air campaign, the international indictment against Gadhafi and the rebels' own emerging strengths will tip the balance in their favor eventually, Jibril said.

"All those ... elements, I would say, are pushing toward more squeezing and strangling of the regime," he told an audience last week at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "So I would say either an internal crackdown will take place or a total collapse of the regime will materialize in the next few weeks."

There the rebel leader paused, almost imperceptibly, before adding, "Hopefully."

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