Almost as soon as the UN-sanctioned intervention to establish a no-fly-zone over Libya had begun, journalists were speculating about how long it would take Western troops to set foot in yet another Muslim country.
While the underlying UN Security Council Resolution 1973 explicitly forbids ‘a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’, a limited and short-term operation of ground troops is – theoretically – possible. However, the US, UK and France are taking great pains to emphasise that they do not intend to put boots on the ground. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the willingness to get sucked into another – potentially endless – war is extremely low.
Against this backdrop, many hope the Libyan rebels will finish the job of removing Gaddafi from power on their own. As in Afghanistan in 2001, airstrikes could pave the way for an advance of rebel troops towards the capital.
But are these hopes realistic?
To answer this question you have to assess the military and political capabilities of the Libyan rebels, something I have done as part of my PhD research on rebels in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the Libyan rebels possess only very moderate military means. A couple of old Soviet-built T-55 tanks, some artillery and one jet fighter. Indicating a profound lack of military expertise, the rebels shot down their second plane over Benghazi on Saturday morning. Apart from that, they are mostly equipped with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The rebels also rely on taxis taking their troops to the frontline. This is no match for Gaddafi’s well-equipped forces.
Therefore, even if the rebels manage to beef up their military capabilities (reportedly, the Egyptian army began to supply arms to them a couple of days ago), they will at best only be capable of holding on to their strongholds in Eastern Libya. Ultimately, this would result in a stalemate and cement a partition of the country.
However, as my research suggests, civil wars are not decided solely on the battlefield: the competition between government and rebels over popular support is also of great importance for the outcome of such a conflict. In the case of Libya, popular support for the rebels could lead to further defections of government units thereby decisively changing the military balance. The question is whether the rebels can create this support on a significant scale.
My research suggests that it is often the political leadership of a rebel movement and its population base that are the most important influences behind building popular support. Regarding the first factor, the Libyan rebels appear to be considerably fragmented over political objectives and strategy. It is unclear whether they can formulate a coherent alternative able to muster widespread support. Moreover, a combination of obscure dissidents and former members of Gaddafi’s ruling clique presently form the rebel leadership. It is questionable whether Libyans will be willing to put their fate in the hands of such men.
Finally, it is vital to remember that Libyan politics often equates with tribal politics: loyalty and allegiance runs along tribal lines. This is something that might favour Gaddafi. As the rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk have opposed the Colonel’s rule in the past, he might play the tribal card to divide his opponents. But even if he fails, tribal divisions mean it will be difficult for the rebels to create widespread national support.
The Libyan rebels therefore, seem to lack the necessary political and military capabilities to remove Gaddafi from power. Hopes that the imposition of a no-fly-zone will lead to anything other than stalemate are based more on wishful Western thinking than rational analysis.
Unless they want to get involved in a messy ground war, France, the UK and the US had better have a cunning plan up their sleeves.