As NATO members express increasing dissatisfaction with the progress of military actions against Qaddafi, France has acknowledged that they are directly arming the Libyan rebels.
France’s Colonel Thierry Burkhard told Al Jazeera that France had dropped machine guns, assault rifles and RPG’s along with other items in the Nafusa Mountains in Western Libya. This development illuminates the stark contrast among NATO member states, some of whom are reconsidering their commitment to the mission against Qaddafi. Other nations, however, have decided that in order to facilitate Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall, a more robust effort is necessary. “We began by dropping humanitarian aid: food, water and medical supplies,” Col. Thierry Burkhard was quoted by AFP news agency.
As the Libyan mission drags on into its fourth month, NATO member states have thus far been reluctant to become fully engaged with the rebels. This is partly due to the realities on the ground. NATO cannot be seen as playing a direct hand in Qaddafi’s downfall despite the fact that NATO warplanes have pounded Libyan ground assets for months. Rather, the mission must be seen as an attempt to protect civilians as authorized by the UN authorized no-fly zone. However, this lack of engagement has not gone unnoticed by the rebels on the ground. Frequently, when the rebels have been surrounded and have faced certain defeat only then have NATO warplanes intervened. Within NATO this development has generated raised eyebrows. Hans Hillen, the Dutch defense minister warned of “mission creep.”
Countering any criticisms that the weapons and supply drop was unsolicited, France’s Lt. Stephanie Lugrin, made the argument that France determined that residents in the Nafusa Mountains had come under threat from government forces and the supply drop was warranted.
France’s Le Figaro reported that the decision on the supply drop was made wholly independent of NATO. However unpopular this decision by France is, some within NATO and elsewhere believe that short of a ground invasion by European or American troops, Qaddafi is unlikely to be dislodged from Tripoli. Despite the length of the NATO mission that was publicly advertised to only last a few weeks and certainly not four months, some would argue that there is hope that the mission will satisfactorily conclude with Qaddafi’s downfall. “The noose is tightening around him, and there’s very few places for him to go,” said Canada’s Gen. Charles Bouchard, the head of the NATO operation. “You don’t stay in power for 41 years and expect that he’s going to leave at the first sign of stresses,” he added.
Despite a significant number of military strikes against government and pro-government forces, including 4,700 sorties, the coalition has been reluctant to totally commit. An errant missile strike killed a number of civilians recently and if this were to be repeated, NATO’s commitment to the mission would diminish further.
The mission to protect civilians is undercutting any potential efforts to act more aggressively towards Qaddafi and the forces loyal to him. NATO’s Libyan involvement is also hampered by its exclusive use of air power. Without ground forces, the only hope of dislodging Qaddafi lies with the poorly trained and armed rebels. Air power alone will not prove effective. Therein lies the reason for the French to arm the rebels directly and not rely on their ability to smuggle the necessary number of weapons into Libya. “With any use of air power comes this public expectation that airplanes will prove our resolve, that we’ll be able to deter the enemy, that they can’t possibly win and will capitulate,” said Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College. She continued, “But this idea that aerial bombardment equals capitulation is a really flawed equation.”
This decision by France garnered a quick condemnation from the African Union. Despite supporting the no-fly zone in the beginning and giving the Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy administrations a buy in, the AU has begun to show less support and in some cases has called for its conclusion.
“What worries us is not who is giving what, but simply that weapons are being distributed by all parties and to all parties. We already have proof that these weapons are in the hands of al-Qaeda, of traffickers,” said the AU’s Jean Ping. “These weapons will contribute to the destabilization of African states.”
It is unlikely that African Union objections will bring an abrupt halt to French efforts to arm the rebels directly. Several NATO members view many of the AU member states suspiciously, essentially considering them to be Qaddafi allies after years of receiving financial inducements by the Libyan leader. However unpopular the arms drops prove to be with African as well as with some European states, they are meant to provide a bookend to a mission that some view as an endless commitment by NATO.
France’s Le Figaro reports that the drops are intended to go beyond simply arming the rebels and villagers in the Nafusa Mountains. In fact, the arms drops are intended for front line rebel units approaching Tripoli, the Libyan capital and Qaddafi stronghold. “If the rebels can get to the outskirts of Tripoli, the capital will take the chance to rise against [Gaddafi],” an official was quoted telling Le Figaro. “The regime’s mercenaries are no longer getting paid and are scarcely getting fed. There’s a severe fuel shortage, the population has had enough.” Additionally, Le Figaro reports on aerial maps depicting airstrips that have reportedly been used to funnel weapons to the rebels.
Despite the argument that directly arming the rebels is within NATO’s purview, this development is guaranteed to garner significant pushback from China and Russia who opposed the no-fly zone from the outset. However, the United States has argued that in spite of the arms embargo imposed on Qaddafi by UN Security Council Resolution 1970, Resolution 1973 authorizing the no-fly zone affords France the window in which to arm the rebels. Whatever outcome results from the NATO mission, this most recent development is likely to intensify the bloodshed. The justification the French give for arming the rebels it is likely to give this conflict a much more conventional feel. For months, the rebels have faced a better-armed and equipped Libyan army. The French hope to alter this imbalance.