1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

No way out

April 21, 2011

NATO's mission in Libya has now lasted four weeks, and there are no signs of an ending yet. With the alliance coming under more pressure with each passing day, is a quick and acceptable withdrawal still possible?

F-16 jet fighter over NATO airbase
NATO's Libyan mission is confined to airstrikesImage: AP

For the past month, the international community has been trying to protect Libyan civilians from troops loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi

The United States confirmed on Thursday that it would begin sending unmanned armed drones over Libya to support international coalition efforts there, a move welcomed by rebel forces.

But since the resolution agreed by the United Nations Security Council expressly forbids NATO troops on Libyan soil, intervention has only come from the air.

So what is the aim of this mission? Will the protection of civilians only end when Gadhafi has fallen?

Meeting of the NATO foreign ministers in Berlin
NATO is hampered by internal divisions on its policy on LibyaImage: dapd

Otfried Nassauer, founding director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS), says these questions are yet to be answered. "This is a mission whose aim is not yet clear," he told Deutsche Welle.

"If there is no quick military success, it could turn into a long and ugly foreign intervention, like in Afghanistan, or a conflict which you don't know how to end, like Kosovo."

A quick military success is certainly not in sight. And Nassauer says that NATO has relatively few ways out of Libya, especially because France, Britain and the US have ruled out direct negotiations with the Libyan regime.

"In other words, it's not just a military stand-off, but a political one, which both sides can only get out of with difficulty," he said.

No feasible way out

For NATO, that means more airstrikes, even if weeks and months go by. The idea is to destroy Gadhafi's heavy weapons, his ammunitions stores and his communications structure, but that's extremely difficult, as the current siege of the port town of Misrata has shown.

There, the rebels are desperately calling for western ground troops, and the regime's soldiers and mercenaries have already infiltrated the civilian population and are fighting the rebels from within the city. NATO, meanwhile, is calling on civilians to leave the areas of fighting, so their airstrikes can proceed.

Still, Michael Brzoska of Hamburg University's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, says intensifying the military intervention would be a grave mistake for NATO. "I don't see a good exit at the moment," he told Deutsche Welle. "I'm assuming that in the end the country will be divided, perhaps in western and eastern halves, maybe with some enclaves on the Tunisian border. Then NATO will have to guarantee that there will be no major outbreaks of violence between the two sides."

Rebels fighting in Misrata, Libya
Rebels in Misrata are locked in a desperate siegeImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa

The risks of staying the course

Brzoska was always opposed to a swift military intervention, and would have preferred a more intensive cooperation with Arab countries. But he says NATO has no choice but to stay the course, for now.

"I don't think Gadhafi can expect NATO to withdraw so he can achieve a military victory. NATO can't afford to lose face like that," he said. "On the other hand, I don't think NATO has any interest in getting involved in a war and destroying Gadhafi's troops."

"Of all the bad options, perhaps the most defensible is a long-term low-level NATO intervention," he added.

But Nassauer warned that staying for the long haul entails its own risks. "You can continue bombing for a long time," he said. "NATO is being damaged because the international community's conflicts over the mission are being carried on within it. It is losing its aura of being the strongest military alliance in the world. But other reputations are being damaged too - for instance the United Nations, who have committed themselves to this concept of taking responsibility for the protection of civilians, but have been unable to realize it."

The Security Council's Libya resolution expressly confines itself to protecting the civilian population. This new moral principle, which emerged following the genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, dictates that the international community is responsible for civilians if the state fails to keep them safe. Brzoska describes the dilemma that this leads to, and which has to be faced every time on a case-by-case basis.

"That protection has to be there," he says. "It's very important for a lot of people round the world that they are not at the mercy of their governments. But that doesn't mean that we in the West should be like moral arbiters, deciding the future of a country by keeping long-term military operations going."

It's exactly that - a long-term military operation - that NATO is now committed to in Libya. Whether the members want it or not, NATO is a combatant there, not an arbiter.

Author: Sandra Petersmann / bk
Editor: Rob Mudge

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

78th UN Vollversammlung Mamadi Doumbouya Guinea
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage