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Arming the opposition

March 21, 2011

Coalition airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces have stopped his advance toward the opposition stronghold of Benghazi. However, ousting Gadhafi from power may require directly supporting the opposition in a ground war.

Libyan rebels
The Libyan opposition is outgunnedImage: picture alliance/dpa

After weeks of deliberation, the international community has intervened militarily in Libya. France, Britain and the US launched airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's regime over the weekend, the opening salvo of a UN-sanctioned military operation designed to stop Gadhafi from targeting Libyan civilians.

Although Admiral Mike Mullen - head of the US Joint Chiefs - said the initial strikes halted Gadhafi's advance toward the opposition stronghold Benghazi, the strategic endgame remains unclear. Limited airstrikes may stop Gadhafi from committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. But if the international coalition wants regime change in Libya, then active participation in the ground war may become unavoidable.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague and members of the US Congress have already discussed sending weapons to the opposition Transitional National Council. However, an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council against Libya complicates the prospect of shipping military hardware to the country. And the White House, unsure of the Libyan opposition's goals, remains reluctant to get pulled into what could be a protracted ground campaign.

The Libyan opposition

Tripoli native Noman Benotman says that the Libyan opposition has clearly articulated a single goal since the uprising began last February.

"There is only one demand - freedom," Benotman, who works with the London-based think tank Quilliam, told Deutsche Welle. "A lot of civilians are giving up their lives and getting killed. It's only because of freedom. Nobody is making any other political or ideological demands. It's all about freedom."

Libya expert Mansour El-Kikhia - who had to flee the country in the 1980s after speaking out against Gadhafi - describes the opposition as largely made up of urban professionals, many of whom resigned from and publicly condemned the regime at great personal risk. El-Kikhia says that the opposition's vision for a post-Gadhafi future is a democratic one.

"There is a plan to develop a democratic society in Libya - to develop a parliament, to adopt the 1951 constitution and the old flag," El-Kikhia told Deutsche Welle, referring to the pre-Gadhafi constitution. "There's really a very serious attempt at creating a government by competent, educated people who have lived in Western societies whether it's in Germany, Canada or the US."

Benotman, however, worries about the risks of leaving the opposition to fend for itself against Gadhafi. Once a key figure in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Benotman left the group and now works against extremism. He warned that the Libyan opposition could take a more radical turn if it has to fight for survival on its own in a protracted civil war.

"The main strategic step needed to be taken by the West is to deal with the National Council at the highest levels and through them they can guarantee that the Libyan uprising continues to be a democratic, moderate uprising or revolution," Benotman said.

Gadhafi loyalists in Tripoli
The advance of Gadhafi loyalists has been stoppedImage: AP

Arms embargo

According to Benotman, engagement should include arming the opposition against Gadhafi as well as sending advisors to train them to use the weapons. However, supporting the Libyan opposition efforts on the ground would be complicated by a UN arms embargo. The nations currently bombing Gadhafi's forces - France, Britain and the US - are the same Security Council members who originally pushed for the embargo as part of a sanctions package passed last February.

"It's not unlikely that they made a mistake," Pieter Wezeman, who tracks arms transfers to North Africa for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Deutsche Welle. "That they simply decided on an arms embargo without looking properly at the text and understanding that this would limit the possibility to supply weapons or help the rebels in general."

Wezeman says that there are now attempts to reinterpret the embargo as applying only to the Gadhafi regime. But he cautions that playing with the language of the original resolution could undermine the strength of future embargos. Ultimately, the Security Council may be forced to lift the embargo it originally passed should it decide to arm the Libyan opposition.

Ronald Bruce St. John, an expert on modern Libya, explains the embargo as the strongest measure short of a no-fly zone that the Security Council could take against Gadhafi at the time. It helped initiate the political momentum that ultimately reached its logical conclusion with the no-fly zone and airstrikes.

"You have to look at the options at the United Nations as a continuum from doing nothing to actively intervening and bombing Gadhafi's forces," St. John told Deutsche Welle. "The UN wanted to take some kind of decisive steps. They weren't ready to go with a no-fly zone at that point. But they wanted to take some steps that seemed at the time to be meaningful but also as much as China and Russia would allow in the Security Council."

No way out

The arms embargo may have already become null and void. According to El-Kikhia, the West has begun to quietly funnel weapons to the Libyan opposition through Egypt, whose military uses similar Russian-model arms.

However, Robert St. John pointed out that it is not the quantity of arms that is important, but instead the type. The rebels seized many of Gadhafi's arms stockpiles early in the conflict. But they still lack the heavy equipment needed to turn the tide against the regime and force Gadhafi from power.

NATO figher jets
Experts say airpower alone is unlikely to oust GadhafiImage: AP

"The rebels have all of the hand-held weapons they need," St. John said. "What they really need is tanks and artillery and air cover to protect them. The arms embargo becomes a non-event at this point because by the time you could get those weapons to the rebels and train them to use them properly the game would be over."

El-Kikhia says that the opposition will fight on regardless of whether the no-fly zone succeeds or heavy weapons are delivered. He believes that both Gadhafi and the opposition have reached a point of no return.

"[Gadhafi] has given the opposition no way out and the truth is the opposition doesn't want a way out," El-Kikhia said. "It has come to the point of give me liberty or give me death. Never again will [the province of] Cyrenaica fall under the rule of Gadhafi. They will not accept it. So if it means he decimates or kills all of us, then so be it."

Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge