The State of Play in Libya

An Update on the NATO Mission

Sarah Margon and Jessica Kahlenberg look at the facts on the ground and what the United States should do as the international community meets in Istanbul to discuss a post-Qaddafi Libya.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, and her  counterpart United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary William Hague, left,  arrive for a meeting in  Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss plans for a post-Qaddafi Libya on July 15, 2011. Negotiations for a settlement between Moammar Qaddafi and the opposition forces are once again developing. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, and her counterpart United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary William Hague, left, arrive for a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss plans for a post-Qaddafi Libya on July 15, 2011. Negotiations for a settlement between Moammar Qaddafi and the opposition forces are once again developing. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Questions about the international community’s role in Libya have mounted steadily since the NATO-led military campaign began in late March to protect civilians using all means necessary. Now it appears a renewed push for a negotiated settlement between the remnants of the Qaddafi regime and the opposition forces may be developing. The U.S. government’s decision this week to officially recognize the main opposition group could strengthen them, but the United States should be careful not to get caught up in supporting one group and instead focus on broad-based planning and institution building as a transition occurs.

Key international actors, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will meet today in Istanbul to discuss the political, economic, and financial needs of a post-Qaddafi Libya. Participating governments and opposition leaders will also discuss options for a negotiated settlement.

At this point in time, it’s helpful to take a step back, look at where the NATO mission stands, and begin to think about what role the United States will play once Libya begins a post-Qaddafi transition.

NATO’s military campaign in Libya

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that began in early 2011 saw little bloodshed and still toppled their governments. But Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi made it clear to the thousands of peacefully protesting Libyans that he had no intention of relinquishing power. Instead, Qaddafi ordered his military to crush the protesters while he threatened to purge Libya “house by house” and “inch by inch.”

In response, and after numerous diplomatic overtures, the international community began military operations in Libya on March 27, 2011. It has worked through NATO, with a U.N. mandate authorizing all necessary measures to protect civilians, and with the support of the Arab League. To date, NATO has conducted approximately 14,672 sorties primarily aimed at air defense systems, armed vehicles, tanks, rocket launchers, and military storage facilities belonging to Qaddafi’s government.

The ongoing cost of operations in Libya could range from $100 million to $300 million per week according to a report released by the Center for Strategic Budget Analysis if one assumes a similar operational tempo similar to the no-fly zone in Iraq. Depending on the number of ground targets, however, the operation could reach between $500 million and $1 billion. The pace and strength of attacks suggest that the intervention’s financial costs are quite significant even if the Obama administration hasn’t released official figures.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley recently stated that operations in Libya cost America $4 million per day. The British officials, meanwhile, assert the conflict costs the United Kingdom just more than 40 million pounds or about $63 million a month. At any rate of engagement, the United States is likely bearing more financial burden for operations than other NATO members despite claims from the previous secretary of defense that we “significantly ramped down” our involvement. This cost difference may be due in part to combat aircrafts kept on standby in case NATO requests assistance.

NATO’s attacks are geared toward taking out the Qaddafi regime command-and-control and military infrastructure. They have also been critical in helping rebels push back Qaddafi’s military (perhaps inadvertently) and in enabling opposition forces time to reorganize and regroup. This raises questions about the whether the alliance’s ultimate intention is to take a broad definition of their civilian protection mandate and play a direct role in ousting Qaddafi or if they intend to adhere to a more narrow definition and protect civilians more immediately at risk.

Internal divisions over NATO’s role have plagued the mission since its inception. Of particular concern are questions over whether NATO should be ramping up direct support for the rebels, pursuing regime change, or focusing on more traditional military targets. These differences have likely existed from the very beginning and may not be easily repaired. Shortly after the initial aerial attacks took place, one EU official noted publicly, albeit anonymously, that the initial descriptions of the intervention in Libya “no longer applied.”

Certain governments also provide military and financial assistance to the rebels, though the full scope of that aid remains both unclear and controversial. The French, British, and Italians supplied the rebels with on-the-ground military advisors during the initial phase of the conflict while the French announced in late June that they also provided lethal equipment to the rebels. The United Kingdom and the United States have provided nonlethal assistance, including contributed body armor, police uniforms, and communications equipment.

Qaddafi weakens but may hang on

As of now Libya remains divided in two, with the opposition rooted in the east and the regime holding on in the west. Despite the superiority of Qaddafi’s forces, the cash-strapped eastern-based rebels have made a number of significant territorial gains over the last few months, though their progress is often two steps forward, one step back.

The U.S. government’s decision at the end of this week to officially recognize the main opposition group—the Transitional National Council, or TNC—until an interim authority is in place has the potential to embolden the rebels and further strengthen the opposition. Diplomatic recognition will enable millions of frozen Libyan assets here in the United States to be released so the TNC can receive the resources it so desperately needs.

New reports suggest that Qaddafi is now facing serious fuel shortages and may be running out of cash to pay his troops. The fighting could tip more decisively in favor of the rebels if Qaddafi lacks adequate resources to sustain his military, and morale among his forces is eroding. But it remains to be seen whether NATO really has the capacity or the stomach to wage urban warfare in Tripoli if Qaddafi hangs on to power.

With so many unknowns, the ongoing NATO mission and the lack of resources for Qaddafi’s troops may be important drivers in what appears to be the regime’s renewed willingness to consider a negotiated settlement.

Attempts at a settlement

There have been a number of efforts to craft a viable political solution. But the rebels have offered conflicting accounts of their expectations. Qaddafi’s objectives also remain difficult to ascertain, and his mental state is notoriously unstable.

On July 3, opposition leaders publicly offered Qaddafi the option to relinquish power but remain in the country. Shortly after opposition leaders made the offer, however, they backtracked, noting there was no current or future possibility of Qaddafi remaining in Libya.

Nonetheless, it is worth taking a look at the plans put forward thus far as reports emerge that Qaddafi and his cadre of close advisors may be considering the options he has left and what he’d want out of a settlement.

A number of players, including Turkey, the African Union, Russia, and the United Nations have all sought some version of a negotiated settlement. Turkey, given its historic relationship with Libya and its NATO membership, has a particular opportunity but was unable to secure anything meaningful in the early phases of the conflict. In early April the African Union sent a senior delegation, including South African President Jacob Zuma, to Tripoli with a peace proposal. Ultimately that failed, too, because it lacked the most crucial ingredient for the opposition: Qaddafi’s departure. The Russian willingness to engage has moved from the informal—when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the World Chess Federation, acted as an informal go-between—to the formal with President Dmitry Medvedev recently scaling up his government’s offer to mediate negotiations. Notably, President Barack Obama made clear earlier this week that his administration would support a Russian effort as long as it leads to a democratic transition where Qaddafi steps aside.

Abdel Al-Khatib, the top U.N. envoy for Libya, has made perhaps the most meaningful effort yet. Al-Khatib tested the waters in preliminary meetings with both parties, emphasizing the importance of a political solution to resolve the crisis. A commitment from both parties to negotiate seems far off, but his willingness to sit down with both sides may be the most promising initiative underway.

Key international actors will meet in Istanbul today to focus on the political, economic, and financial needs of a post-Qaddafi Libya. Participating governments will also discuss options for a negotiated settlement.

Turkey is expected to put forth a “third way” plan at this meeting that includes support for a ceasefire and a “safe haven” for Qaddafi—likely a controversial offer given that the International Criminal Court indicted him for ordering attacks against civilians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to join this meeting suggests the administration seeks to be a constructive player in helping to find a political end to the Libyan conflict.

Humanitarian conditions

The July 2011 assessment reports from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance suggest that humanitarian assistance is reaching those in need if they are in accessible areas. Insecurity remains the greatest hindrance to aid delivery as the initial refugee flows diminish and aid organizations develop coordinated mechanisms for dispersing services. Notably, few civilians remain on the front line where the bulk of the fighting occurs, which makes it easier to reach those who need help.

A recent U.N. mission to the Nafusa Mountains and other parts of western Libya notes there are now some 100,000 displaced in that part of the country. Shortages of water, certain food items, and medical supplies exacerbate the problems. The World Food Program is working closely with Libya’s Red Crescent to deliver food there.

A U.N. mission to Misrata, where intense fighting in late spring displaced some 25,000 people, suggests humanitarian conditions are improving. There are still serious concerns about immediate health needs, water shortages, and rising food prices. But the United Nations’ decision to launch a regularized ferry carrying relief supplies to Misrata and Benghazi opened up another important avenue for access.

Still, the numbers of displaced are high. The International Organization for Migration and U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimate about 710,000 individuals have fled the country (both Libyan and not). And within the country there are an estimated 218,000 internally displaced. Many of these people headed toward the western mountains for safety and do not have access to basic services.

The international community thus far has provided approximately $380.5 million for humanitarian assistance. It’s expected that many shortages will persist as the conflict continues. In response, the United Nations launched an initiative to ease the impact of Libya’s sanctions regime on supplies needed for humanitarian relief so the Libyan people don’t suffer disproportionately. In addition, the upcoming release of millions of dollars of frozen Libyan assets may be an important element in helping the opposition provide for those in need.

What’s next?

Qaddafi maintains his grip on power despite the international military campaign and protracted fighting. New evidence, however, suggests that Qaddafi may be sending signals through emissaries that he is willing to enter discussion about the next phase. These may be signs that he doesn’t think he can maintain control for much longer, especially given the numerous defections and growing fissures within his own regime.

The administration must continue to work closely with the international community, key regional actors, and Libyans themselves to craft a plan that stops the fighting and enables a legitimate inclusive political discussion to take place. Incorporating Qaddafi’s ICC indictment into any negotiations will be an important measure of accountability for the new Libya.

At the same time, planning must begin now for a post-Qaddafi Libya—a period that is likely to be chaotic and difficult. Recognition of the opposition has the potential to be a double-edged sword, particularly as post-Qaddafi planning gets underway. The administration must be cautious not to rely predominantly on the individuals who comprise the TNC. It should instead maintain a focus on broad-based planning and institution building.

Developing a realistic timeline for transition without rushing any negotiations that might be underway is essential. The administration should offer our deep technical expertise in constitutional drafting, institutional reform, and rule of law while not placing too great a focus on elections. Inevitably, a post-Qaddafi Libya will need a lot of talented diplomats and aid workers to help it move beyond the shaky ground of transition.

Sarah Margon is the Associate Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative and Jessica Kahlenberg is a National Security intern at American Progress.

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