TRIPOLI—Dead babies quicken the blood for a moribund regime, pumping oxygen back into the decaying body politic.
NATO has just handed Moammar Gadhafi a lifeline.
What remains to be seen is whether the alliance’s member nations — some of which were already intractably opposed to military intervention in Libya — will be pulled further apart by escalating doubts over the mission’s self-imposed objective: Gadhafi’s total capitulation and exit.
That was not the intent of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, although leaders from the countries doing all the heavy lifting in the aerial campaign have hardly been discreet in stipulating that the Libyan strongman must go, even if no one has a clue what governing apparatus might replace Gadhafi’s four-decade rule-of-one.
There was always the possibility of a bombing blunder by NATO. Collateral damage —harm inflicted on the very civilian population the alliance was charged with protecting —is an unfortunate fact of aerial attacks. That the pilots had flown some 11,500 sorties over nearly four months without any significant miscues merely shortened the odds of a calamity occurring at some point.
This clearly happened on the weekend, and Gadhafi’s acolytes were quick to exploit the results, summoning foreign journalists in the middle of the night to witness first-hand bodies being pulled from the wreckage of a residential area in Arada district, one of Tripoli’s poorer neighbourhoods. Alleged victims — two men, one woman, two toddlers — were also displayed at the morgue.
Whether caused by missile malfunction, pilot error or poor targeting intelligence, the upshot is the same: Government officials gleefully seized upon the casualties to condemn NATO’s onslaught. Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim predictably overplayed his hand, accusing the alliance of “intentional and deliberate targeting of civilian houses,’’ the errant strike indicative of “the brutality of the West.”
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim fulminated at the scene: “It is another night of massacre, terror and horror at the hands of NATO.’’
NATO has tacitly admitted the bombing mistake, which came just days after a confirmed friendly-fire incident in which a rebel patrol was accidentally hit in front-line confusion.
And on Monday, Gadhafi officials took journalists to another location west of Tripoli, a pulverized family compound, claiming at least 15 civilians — including three children — had been killed in this overnight strike. The residence was the home of a longtime Gadhafi ally, Khoweildi al-Hamidi — his daughter married to one of the Brother Leader’s sons — and among the few revolutionary old guard who haven’t bolted Libya since the military campaign began in March. Libyan officials said al-Hamidi had been present but was unharmed, though two grandchildren were among those killed.
NATO, while expressing regret for any civilian loss of life, said the strike hit a “command and control” centre — a “legitimate military target” that “was directly involved in coordinating systematic attacks” on Libyan citizens.
In fact, NATO strikes have been impressively precise since the alliance assumed command from the U.S.-led coalition that prevented loyalist forces from slaughtering both civilians and rebel fighters in Benghazi as the uprising was being brutally suppressed.
But the limitations of an aerial campaign have become every day more apparent, especially one in which only nine NATO nations — Canada among them — have contributed fighter jets, attack helicopters and pilots. Further, this has not been a particularly vigorous assault from the skies. An average of 150 sorties a day is barely one-third the strike rate of NATO’s air war over Serbia and Kosovo in 1999.
Given the professed goal of dislodging Gadhafi from power, each day that he remains at the helm — sputtering defiance in rhetoric broadcast on Libyan TV or booming from loudspeakers at Green Square — is considered a regime victory.
Gadhafi may be a buffoon, a caricature of despotism, but he’s no fool. He obviously believes that time is on his side and NATO’s dubious achievements elsewhere — Afghanistan, most notably — would reinforce the view that he needs only to hang on until the alliance combusts from within. America’s limited involvement has removed the most terrifying military threat. European capitals can reliably be expected to fall out among themselves or lose their stomach for a mission of incremental gains and huge financial costs.
While eastern Libya may forever be lost, Gadhafi’s forces — militarily adept — seem capable of exerting authority in the rest of the country. Two rebel fronts — one trying to break out from Misurata and the other, tribal Berbers fighting out of the Western Mountains — take heavy casualties whenever they try to advance.
It was hoped the regime would collapse from within as NATO pounded Gadhafi’s command-and-control network, wither away from supply lines disrupted, run out of ammunition, fuel and money. That may yet happen, but it will take much longer than had been anticipated and NATO’s political masters in Europe may not have the luxury of time. Meanwhile, the Transitional National Council said on the weekend that it’s under a tremendous financial crunch, in immediate need of more than $3 billion because promised funding from donor nations hasn’t materialized.
Without competent ground forces to exploit the combat space opened up by NATO aircraft, there’s no end in sight to Libya’s crisis. The strategy has to evolve and, frankly, perhaps the goal needs shifting. Military intervention has been indecisive, at best. Nightly skirmishes between rebels and police notwithstanding, Tripoli does not feel like a city willing to risk another urban uprising. The loss of life would be catastrophic.
Gadhafi is not a trustworthy opponent and his earlier truce gambits were palpably fraudulent. But the time may have arrived for the regime to be tested on its professed willingness — as oft cited by Gadhafi’s mouthpieces — to explore a negotiated resolution, even if that means dropping the rebels’ insistence on Gadhafi’s departure as a starting point.
“The longer Libya’s military conflict persists, the more it risks undermining the anti-Gadhafi camp’s avowed objectives,’’ argues an assessment recently published by the International Crisis Group, a well-regarded think-tank. “To insist, as they have done, on Gadhafi’s departure as a precondition for any political initiative is to prolong the military conflict and deepen the crisis.
“Instead, the priority should be to secure an immediate ceasefire and negotiations on a transition to a post-Gadhafi political order.’’
Intractability about Gadhafi — deposed, brought before the International Criminal Court or killed — has left him without an out, unlike the dictators who grasped at exile from neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.
For Gadhafi, this all but guarantees he will fight to the death. That would be fine — if babies weren’t dying, too.
NATO can’t win from the air. Rebels can’t win on the ground. Call a pause and let diplomats launch their sorties.
Failure is an option. And bombing can be resumed.