At the very least, Western forces with the United States, France and Britain in the lead, will have to establish a buffer zone dividing Gadaffi’s forces from the rebels in their bid to guarantee that Gadaffi does not retake the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya. That may be difficult with air power alone. So will protection of rebel pockets in Misurata and Zawya in western Libya. French military aircraft have been in action above Misurata but with Gadaffi’s forces deployed close to populated areas, air power is likely to prove insufficient to dislodge them. Mission creep seems inevitable.
If military operations do not lead to an internal collapse of Gadaffi’s forces, the question arises where the buffer zone should be drawn and for how long a stalemate will be acceptable in the battle between Gadaffi and those seeking an end to his 41-year rule. One would assume that rebel territory would have to include Libyan oil fields, facilities and pipelines in the east of the country. This would deprive Gadaffi from revenues and provide the rebels with a source of funding. Alternatively, Western nations will probably give the rebels access to Libyan assets frozen abroad.
The drawing and maintenance of a long-term buffer zone would amount to a division of Libya between the rebel-held east and the government-controlled west. Instability is an inevitable consequence. Eastern Libya would become the equivalent of Iraqi Kurdistan, which was an Iraqi protectorate shielded by US air power from Saddam Hussein’s wrath in the years between the 1991 Gulf war and the toppling of Saddam in 2003.
US, British and French objectives, however, appear to go far beyond the creation of a protectorate if the rhetoric emanating from Washington, London and Paris is anything to go by. That rhetoric implies that the goal is regime change, which stretches the terms of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing military operations. The goal of regime change would necessitate expanded military operations, including strikes against Gadaffi’s ground forces. Saddam responded to that strategy by digging in; he managed to hang on to power for 12 years despite punishing sanctions and international isolation.
The absence of forces from the two countries, Egypt and Tunisia, that this year successfully toppled their authoritarian leaders casts a shadow over the military operation. Lip service rather than military assets paid by the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates does not compensate for the failure to ensure Egyptian and Tunisian participation. Initially, western powers will benefit from the argument that their intervention is to protect a popular uprising in parts of Libya from Gadaffi’s brutal crackdown. That is an argument that is likely to wear thin over time.
Ultimately, the absence of active, frontline Arab military participation in the attack on Gadaffi will lend credence to the Libyan leader’s argument that he is fighting a foreign conspiracy to split Libya and gain control of its oil riches.
It could allow Gadaffi to persuade at least some of the undecided in Libya to support him in defence of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, it would enable him to associate his current battle with Libya’s struggle against Italian colonialism, which still figures vividly in the nation’s memory.
Pro-longed military operations, despite the lip service to the attack paid by a host of Arab countries, will enable authoritarian leaders to reframe the debate in their countries by positioning themselves as bastions of resistance against foreign conspiracies to undermine their independence.
This argument will gain weight as Western forces slide down the slippery slope that begins air strikes to impose a no-fly zone but likely ends with an ever expanding military engagement involving more extensive air strikes and the deployment of ground troops.