What it Takes to Protect Civilians in Libya

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April 20, 2011 | by Fatima Ayub

I attended a talk this week at the European Council on Foreign Relations about Libya, featuring Libyan Interim National Council spokesperson Guma al-Gamaty, former Rear Admiral and NATO Commander Christopher Parry, and Donal Brown, Libya team leader for the UK's Department for International Development. The discussion brought renewed focus and urgency to a number of questions about the faltering intervention in Libya.

The massacre intended for Benghazi that prompted international action has instead made its grisly way to Misurata. The coastal town, besieged since February, is fighting back against government forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. The scale of the humanitarian crisis there far outstrips available assistance, and only a few brave reporters have risked the onslaught to reveal Misurata’s devastating fate.

The battle in Misurata, along with the shells of Gaddafi’s destroyed tanks and weaponry outside Benghazi, should leave observers in no doubt of the Libyan dictator’s lethal intentions toward his own civilian population. But the elation that accompanied the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing ‘all necessary means’ at the international community’s disposal to protect civilians has rapidly dwindled with the realization that an effective military effort to that end cannot be conducted from the sky.

A renewed sense of impending horror accompanies this diminishing euphoria. With his back to the wall and his sons fighting to keep control of Libya as their personal piggy bank, Gaddafi will likely outmaneuver an ineffective air campaign, and the scenes playing out in Misurata will be re-enacted in a vicious loop across the country. To get the fighting to stop, Gaddafi has to be neutralized in the battle space, which is not possible given a military campaign conducted by air.

Gaddafi’s arsenal will likely allow him to fight on for a year perhaps, but the armed opposition is not likely to last nearly as long and the human cost of the conflict is rising sharply. If their military resistance is crushed, the leaders of the revolution will pay the ultimate price and civilians will simply be collateral damage. But prospects for averting another Misurata are not promising.

The opposition has to be trained to fight, as most are willing but inexperienced in combat. Even with arms and munitions, without training, weapons are useless and likely to lend to chaos in the battle space. Even at the fastest clip, basic training for fighters takes about three months. If the armed opposition cannot be relied on to protect civilians, then the international community must urgently revisit what ‘all necessary means’ would entail, and seriously consider the option of a targeted ground campaign to repel attacks on civilians and withdraw rapidly.

Appetite is weak for either option. The proliferation and misapplication of arms, a lack of command and control structures, and well-meaning but untrained forces are a recipe for further destabilization. With future oil revenues the armed opposition may well seek to arm itself, independent of formal support from NATO or others. And though one could make the case that ground forces are a necessary element of successful civilian protection, NATO and Arab governments are not political or practically prepared to defend Libyan lives with their own.

The intervention in Libya, though rightly sanctioned and with just cause under the doctrine of responsibility to protect, was short on planning and long on hope. Even the purest of interventions are ultimately military operations, and thus need good strategy, resources, and execution. Without these components, fighting for a good cause serves no one--not the intervening forces and not the civilians on the ground. Moreover, a rightly-intended intervention badly planned gives cheap fodder to all those contend that interventions are impossible.

NATO and the UN must revisit what ‘all necessary means’ of protection would entail and decide if they can commit to those means. If they can’t or won’t, Libya’s revolution will be a long and bloody one, and is not likely to favor the hopeful, beleaguered democratic opposition.