RIA Novosti military commentator Konstantin Bogdanov
The Libyan rebels’ somewhat dubious success in Tripoli threatens to draw NATO
into a ground operation while Washington is wondering whether the European
coalition was right to rush into battle.
Who is fighting on the side of the rebels in Libya?
The saga of Tripoli’s fall and the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya
continues. The European allies seem to be launching a new phase of their Libyan
operation, one that is marked by even greater military involvement. So far, only
one thing is certain: increased activity in terms of technical intelligence
gathering and on the part of the Special Forces.
“I can confirm that NATO is providing intelligence and reconnaissance assets
to the NTC (National Transitional Council) to help them track down Colonel
Gaddafi and other remnants of the regime,” Britain’s Defense Minister Liam Fox
said Thursday in an interview with Sky News.
But all the signs are that this involvement is not limited to sharing
intelligence with the rebels. Citing UK defense sources, The Daily Telegraph
reported “the SAS has been in Libya for several weeks.” If the newspaper’s
sources are to be believed, British Special Forces “played a key role in
coordinating the fall of Tripoli” and that they were even to be found mingling
in rebel ranks “dressed in Arab civilian clothing and carrying the same weapons
as the rebels.”
The Special Forces being referred to are the elite 22 SAS Regiment comprising
experts in air assault and counter-terrorist operations. The newspaper’s sources
add that SAS men will now be re-oriented to hunting down Gaddafi. Reporting Liam
Fox’s interview with Sky News, Reuters noted that he declined to comment on this
Daily Telegraph story.
The French President Nicolas Sarkozy was less ambivalent than Fox, and on
Wednesday he denied reports that French Special Forces were involved in the
ground operation in Libya. This denial proved timely, considering the
proliferation of unconfirmed reports online about French Foreign Legion fighters
taking part in the operation around Tripoli. There are also reports of Arab
mercenaries from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and members of private security
firms being engaged in combat operations in Libya.
Earlier Gaddafi announced that his forces had captured Iraqi and Egyptian
mercenaries who were fighting with the rebels. True, these individuals were
never paraded before the journalists, and the fact that the alleged incident was
not exploited to the max places a question mark over the initial claims.
NATO boots on the ground?
Despite the heavy media and blogger presence around Tripoli nobody has yet
provided convincing evidence of direct European military participation in the
ground operation, although it is probable.
First, the initial phase of the storm of Tripoli went so smoothly that raises
the suspicion that it was carried out by well-trained units with a much broader
tactical prowess than the ragtag rebel army can surely muster.
Second, the direct participation of NATO personnel on the ground is
inevitable: coordinating air strikes within city limits required qualified
people who were both familiar with modern battlefield reconnaissance systems and
up to date on NATO target identification procedure.
The theory that these professionals could be trained up by NATO instructors
locally within two to three months should be dismissed as totally unrealistic.
That is barely enough time to prepare passable cannon fodder, i.e. to train
people not so much to use modern military hardware and weaponry as to obey
discipline and form combat units.
That is the most that can be achieved within such a short time. Such doubts
seem to be reinforced by The Daily Telegraph reports that the British SAS
embedded in the rebel ranks had effectively organized and conducted the storm of
Tripoli and are now hunting Gaddafi.
One can issue any number of denials of the European commandos’ presence on
the ground in Libya, but world practice of covert support for similar operations
suggests that if the Special Forces are not present, it indeed would be such an
extraordinary approach, so very much out-of-the-box, that it would require an
So, NATO is most probably involved in the ground operation. The strength and
scale of this operation remain to be seen, and the exact functions it is
performing (apart from the air support and intelligence transfers admitted
officially) also require some clarification.
A short victorious war for the new Entente
The slow pace of the Libyan campaign may be in some way related to the
thinking of those running the operation: just one little push and everything
will come tumbling down all by itself. Perhaps “the Arab spring”, which swept
away several regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, gave Paris and
London a false sense that the Gaddafi regime was on its last legs.
But the Gaddafi regime is not crumbling yet. Force and perhaps even a
full-scale invasion will be needed to finish it off. Everyone, except perhaps
the euphoric rebels, oppose that scenario. However, NATO finds it hard to
backtrack and will find it harder with every day the Libyan campaign lasts.
But is this talk of NATO correct? Looking at what led up to this Libyan
adventure and considering how events unfolded, it should be called a
Franco-British operation – of course with a sprinkling of other Europeans,
Americans and Arabs from the Gulf States. Moreover, the secondary coalition
members, who can hardly be described as having been enthusiastic from the start
(not counting the Arabs), have been gradually scaling down their participation
in the operation. This is especially true of the United States.
On Tuesday former U.S. NATO envoy Kurt Volker published a long, bitter and
acerbic article in the journal Foreign Policy about the woeful lack of
coordination between European countries and the U.S. in this joint NATO-led
Volker gets to the root problem with the Libyan operation: having selfishly
assumed responsibility for military decisions and loosely interpreting the UN
resolution on Libya, Paris and London have proved unable to implement their
plans effectively without broad external support. But this support was not
forthcoming, either from the United States (which limited its participation to
air strikes in spring), or from the main European allies, notably Germany, who
have flatly refused to take part in combat operations.
France and Britain have not been very successful in pursuing this complex
campaign independently. Not that the European powers are lacking in ambition:
last autumn Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron essentially committed themselves
to forming a close bilateral military-political alliance. That included joint
military deployment where it is in the two countries’ common interests as well
as joint control and improvement of their nuclear forces.
The Libyan operation has become the first test of this “new Entente.” It
seems to be punching above its weight.
Libya, of course, is not the “Bay of Pigs” where in April 1961 CIA-trained
Cuban exiles, backed by the U.S. Air Force, landed on the island in the hope
that they would overthrow the Castro regime. The European allies are getting
bogged down in Libya much more slowly and therefore more deeply. All they can do
is clench their teeth and try to push on through until victory can be
proclaimed, if not actually achieved.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not
necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.