ISW in Brief: In Shift, Europeans Deploy Military Liasons to Libya

ISW in Brief: In Shift, Europeans Deploy Military Liasons to Libya

by David Witter

April 21, 2011

In recent days, Libyan rebels have struggled to maintain control of their previous strongholds in the face of an intensifying assault by Qaddafi’s forces. As a result, some Western nations have announced that they will deploy military advisers to aid rebel forces. The move to put Western forces on the ground, broadening the intervention beyond a no-fly zone, indicates that the conflict in Libya may be entering a new phase.

The battle for control of Libya has deteriorated over the past few weeks into a dire humanitarian crisis. The rebels—who since late February have been besieged by Qaddafi’s forces in Misrata, 120 miles east of Tripoli—are engaged in intense urban warfare. This has severely limited NATO’s warplanes from launching airstrikes without killing friendly forces or civilians. The situation worsened last week when forces loyal to Qaddafi began firing unguided rockets, mortars, and reportedly cluster munitions, causing severe damage. Hospitals have been overwhelmed as civilian casualties continue to mount. Additionally, access to the road to Misrata’s port, where ships deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate refugees, has been increasingly contested. If the rebels lose control of this road, it will only be a matter of time before Qaddafi’s troops overwhelm the city.

Additionally, in the last few weeks loyalist and rebel forces have engaged in intense fighting in the town of Brega, and its eastern neighbor, Ajdabiya. Despite initial rebel gains, the rebels were pushed out of Brega on April 6th, and retreated to Ajdabiya, a vital crossroads for northeastern Libya. Currently, the rebels control Ajdabiya, though their position is increasingly threatened by loyalist forces positioned roughly twenty miles to the west, closer to Brega. If rebels cede control of Ajdabiya, there is little to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from advancing upon Benghazi, the capital of the opposition. And NATO has reportedly instructed the rebels not to advance west of Ajdabiya to prevent potential friendly fire incidents, following the mistaken NATO bombing of rebel forces on April 2 and April 7, which killed at least twenty people.

Qaddafi’s forces have also exploited the limitations of NATO airpower. As NATO forces refrain from conducting airstrikes on cities for fear of civilian casualties, the loyalist forces ensconced in Misrata are unchallenged. Qaddafi’s forces have also advanced during periods of bad weather when planes are unable to fly low enough to accurately identify targets. Finally, loyalist forces are now traveling in the same pick-up trucks favored by the rebels instead of tanks and armored personnel carriers. This has the potential to result in either more cases of friendly fire by NATO or fewer airstrikes during close combat, both of which threaten the rebel effort.

All this has prompted some European countries to broaden their military support. Italy, France, and the United Kingdom announced this week that each country would send between ten and twenty military officers to advise and train the rebel forces in Benghazi. This decision, a small but significant escalation, indicates that NATO has realized not only the limits of airpower alone to support the uncoordinated and ineffective rebel army, but also that the conflict may be entering a new phase.

The European Union (EU) is also exploring the possibility of deploying ground troops. EU officials recently proposed a provisional plan to put troops in the port of Misrata in order to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid. This plan, however, will not be enacted without UN authorization, which may be difficult to attain. Moreover, the EU’s system of rotating responsibility for providing combat troops from its member nations further threatens this plan. The current rotation dictates that German forces lead the mission; however, Germany has voiced strong opposition to the breadth of the NATO airstrikes and is unlikely to put its own troops on the ground in Libya, even under the auspices of an EU humanitarian mission.

Though the United States announced yesterday that it will provide $25 million in military supplies to the rebels, the United States has affirmed it will not put troops on the ground in Libya. Even as the way forward remains uncertain, it is clear that the current means employed are not sufficient to topple Qaddafi. If Qaddafi’s ouster is their aim, NATO forces must think critically about what means to employ as the conflict moves into a new phase.

David Witter is a Research Assistant at ISW.

To join ISW as a member and continue receiving ISW in Brief, please visit this link.

For the latest news and analysis on Libya, follow the
Institute for the Study of War & the Critical Threats Project’s
Libya Conflict: Situation Update.