Four months after the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi began, and three months after the first NATO air strikes, the situation on the ground has reached a stalemate.
In an attempt to end the impasse, NATO has resorted to the significant use of aerial bombing and to aiding the rebels. Weapons are reportedly being smuggled into Libya from Tunisia and Egypt, and Qatar, together with some NATO member states, is helping to arm the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (NTC).
Recently, in a significant escalation of the conflict, France and Great Britain have deployed attack helicopters to break the military stalemate, particularly in the key coastal town of Misurata.
In conjunction with this, NATO also destroyed Libya's small navy in order to pave the way for further assistance to the rebels in Misurata, who now appear to be in control of the town.
In response to the massive NATO air strikes, Colonel Qaddafi affirmed in a telephone message that was broadcast on June 7: "We will not kneel, we will not surrender...we shall stay here till the end, dead, alive, victorious; it does not matter."
Initially, the leaders of France, Britain, and the United States were optimistic that the collapse of the Qaddafi regime was imminent. But the NATO bombing has not borne any tangible fruit yet, and the regime is putting up stiff resistance. It might take weeks, and possibly months, before we witness the fall of the regime. The question here is: why have the NATO air raids failed to break the stalemate?
Regime Proves Unexpectedly Resilient
The Qaddafi regime continues to show resilience, and some of the inhabitants of Tripoli and the surrounding area, though living under a virtual siege, still support the regime. The notion that the NTC is accepted by all Libyans does not seem to be true. The NTC is not a cohesive body, and reportedly it does not tolerate any opposition toward it in the territory it controls. Moreover, some members of the NTC were either Qaddafi supporters or worked for the Libyan government, and are therefore implicated in past repression. For some Libyans, the NTC, which is wholly dependent on the West, is not a desirable alternative.
Some Libyans continue to support the Qaddafi regime purely out of self-interest, in return for privileges and cash. Others may do so for fear of the painful fate that awaits them if the regime collapses and the rebels take over.
Moreover, the regime seems to be coping financially. It was expected that following the imposition of international financial sanctions in late February-March, Qaddafi's coffers would be empty within three months. But despite the regime's major financial problems, public employees, both military and civilians, continue to receive their salaries regularly, and comparatively few military personnel have deserted Qaddafi in the areas still under his control.
By late April, according to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, NATO air strikes had degraded "between 30 and 40 percent of [Qaddafi's] main ground forces and his ground-force capabilities." With a fraction of the army's combat power, the regime is currently showing stiff resistance on several fronts in the towns of Zawiya, Misurata, and Dafniyah, which suggests that Qaddafi's troops still have some fight left in them.
One of the main factors that contributed to the current impasse is the flexibility shown by Qaddafi's forces, which modified their tactics after the imposition of the no-fly zone by the United Nations and the beginning of bombing on March 19, as tanks and heavy guns were easy targets. Qaddafi's troops have dispensed with tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and heavy weapons for confronting the rebels. They now use ordinary vehicles for transportation, which means that they are no longer such easy targets for NATO aircraft. This switch, whether a conscious decision or a forced one, in effect makes it very difficult for NATO planes to differentiate between friend and foe.
Another factor contributing to the continued survival of the Qaddafi regime is the weakness of the rebel forces. In the early days of the uprising, it was expected that the rebels would succeed in toppling Qaddafi within a very short time with only minimum assistance and guidance. That expectation has proven misplaced, as the military weakness of the rebel forces has become increasingly obvious.
True, morale among the rebel forces may be high. But they are not properly organized, and suffer from a shortage of weapons and equipment, inadequate training, and inexperienced commanders. In recent weeks, some NATO countries have taken steps to rectify those weaknesses.
Mixed Signals From NATO
The irresolution and wavering on the part of NATO members that have gradually surfaced have not helped. The Arab League's political support for the NATO military action against Qaddafi, which was symbolically very important, has subsided somewhat and its attention has turned to the uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen.
Currently, Arab countries have deployed only a few aircraft to support NATO's Allied Protector operation. Major global powers Russia and China have intensified their criticism of NATO actions in Libya and propose resolving the current standoff through diplomacy and dialogue with the NTC.
During a meeting last week of NATO defense ministers, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Germany and Poland to participate in Operation Allied Protector. He also asked Spain and Turkey not to confine themselves to their hitherto limited assistance to the operation.
At the same meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized five NATO members (Germany, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands) for their unwillingness to participate in, or provide limited assistance to the operation. "While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission," Gates told NATO's Security and Defense Agenda assembly on June 10.
The United States remains the biggest contributor to the operation and has flown 27 percent of all sorties to date in terms of reconnaissance, bombers, and midair-refueling planes. According to a recent report by the Pentagon, the cost to the United States of the ongoing operations in Libya had reached $664 million by mid-May and is currently rising by $2 million per day.
Apart from criticism, unwillingness, and vacillation on the part of some NATO members, a number of participating countries have floated the idea of a deadline for Operation Allied Protector. They simply do not wish to be involved in the operation for an indefinite period. All these factors send conflicting signals to Qaddafi and give him hope that if he continues to resist, he might be able to ride out the storm.
NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen said following the meeting of NATO defense ministers last week that member states had agreed to extend the operation for 90 more days after the end of June. Rasmussen confidently affirmed that Qaddafi "is history, and it is no longer a question of if he goes, but when."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton similarly told a press conference on June 9 at the end of an international conference on Libya in Abu Dhabi that "there have been continuing discussions by people close to Qaddafi, and we are aware that those discussions include, among other things, the potential for a transition." At the same time, she admitted that "there is not any clear way forward yet."
No Easy Options
NATO hopes that by intensifying its air operation and rendering assistance to the rebels, the Qaddafi regime will shatter and his 41-year rule will come to an end.
Countries participating in the Abu Dhabi conference, including the United States and some European and Arab countries, pledged nearly $1.1 billion in aid to the NTC.
NATO, the EU, and the United States are talking about an endgame in Libya and the imminent departure of Qaddafi, and the leaders of NTC are already speaking about victory. Severe damage has been inflicted on the western part of Libya under Qaddafi's control and most state institutions there are barely functioning. Some believe nevertheless that it may take months before Qaddafi is removed from power. British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently told the BBC that the bombing might continue until the end of the year.
While Qaddafi's recent radio message "we will not kneel, we will not surrender" is questionable, the current situation leaves him no room for a voluntary transition of power.
The NTC does not trust him, and its precondition for talks with Tripoli is his unconditional removal from power. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest, and therefore any country that offers him asylum will be considered an outlaw.
The end for Qaddafi is simply a matter of time. He is under increasing military, political, and economic pressure. Under the current circumstances, he can either face the International Criminal Court in The Hague and spend the rest of his life in prison, or stay in Tripoli and continue resisting in the hope of riding out the storm. He has already run out of face-saving options, and NATO appears set to win in the long run.
However, if the air war stalls, NATO's leaders will have to find alternative scenarios for removing Qaddafi from power. They could include NATO's deliberate targeting of Qaddafi, or co-opting those military officers in Tripoli who want to see the end of him.
Hossein Aryan is deputy director of RFE/RL's Radio Farda