Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NATO's Role in the Libyan Revolution

On August 22, the Libyan rebels made a dramatic entrance into Tripoli, marking the culmination of their six-month-long struggle against the regime of Muammar Qadhafi. Back in February 2011, the rebellion began as a series of peaceful protests for change that sprang in Tunisia and rocked the Islamic world. Encountering the Qadhafi regime’s crackdown, the protests escalated into an uprising that spread across the country, with the forces opposing Qadhafi establishing a government based in Benghazi named the National Transitional Council (NTC) and seeking the overthrow the Qadhafi-led government. Qadhafi’s bloody crackdown was quickly condemned by the United Nations, which froze the Libyan assets and, following further government attacks on its citizens, authorized member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Despite the ensuing NATO air bombardment campaign, the Qadhafi regime proved to be resilient. In fact, the hastily organized and poorly led rebel forces were repeatedly rolled back by much more experienced and better armed government forces, especially the vaunted Khamis Brigade. Just two weeks ago, the revolt against Muammar Qadhafi and his regime appeared to have stalled. The rebel efforts to push west from Benghazi and Misrata were repelled, and the rebel leadership appeared to be turning on itself. And yet, the last week of August showed a remarkable turnaround.

Several factors contributed to this change. The sudden collapse of Qadhafi's forces in late August was preceded by steady attrition through months of air strikes and squeezed supply lines. The NATO air campaign, which conducted over 19,750 sorties, inflicted considerable damage on the military capability of the Qadhafi forces. The relentless bombardment of armor and artillery east of Zawiya greatly weakened government defenses and contributed to breaking down much of the resistance that could have halted the rebel advance.

But much more important work was done behind the scenes. Judging from available reports, foreign special forces—primarily from France, Great Britain, and the United States, but also from Qatar and Jordan—played a major role in training the inexperienced rebel forces, providing weapons and serving as forward air control to guide air strikes. Over the last few weeks, the rebel groups appeared to be better armed and forged a closer and more effective working relationship with the NATO jets above them. While most of the world’s attention had focused on Brega and Misrata, the turning point of the campaign seems to have take place in what had hitherto been considered a sideshow, the Nafusa highlands in the west, where the NATO trainers and regular deliveries of arms and equipment fused the disparate rebel elements into a fighting force. The offensive that began from this region in early August delivered a breakthrough in the stalemate as the rebels scored a major victory at Zawiya. It demonstrated better preparation and coordination among the rebel forces while an amphibious assault on Tripoli clearly revealed the extent of planning that underlay rebel operations. One cannot but suspect considerable Western involvement in this planning. This detracts nothing from the efforts that the NTC has undertaken in its struggle against the Qadhafi regime, but it does underscore the decisive impact of NATO's decision to serve as the rebel air force.

--Alexander Mikaberidze is assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University, Shreveport, LA, and an award-winning author of eight books. His most recent published work is Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia.

Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World
This comprehensive reference work documents the extensive military history of the Islamic world between the 7th century and the present day.

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