Analysis: Into the unknown with military action on Libya


France, Britain and their allies will take a step into the unknown with military intervention in Libya that could lead to an open-ended conflict. Yesterday’s United Nations Security Council resolution authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians short of a foreign occupation force. In the short term, jets may strike ground targets and Libyan aircraft.

The question then will be how Libya’s always idiosyncratic leader Muammar Gaddafi, or Libya’s own population, will react. “It’s very hard to predict what will happen next,” said Henry Smith, Libya analyst at London-based consultancy Control Risks. “A lot depends on Gaddafi’s mindset.”
“The best case scenario would be that we would quickly get some kind of ceasefire and perhaps a de facto partition. But we have conflicting signals from Tripoli. Gaddafi has a history of using unconventional tactics.” Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — both initially judged quick and relatively simple interventions that turned into long drawn-out campaigns with thousands of civilian and western military dead — leave many worried.

Supporters of intervention point to massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda as warnings of the consequences of inaction. The Security Council had already referred Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court for his crackdown on rebels trying to emulate protesters in Egypt and Tunisia by ousting him. Gaddafi has threatened to retaliate across the Mediterranean against hostile action.
“The complexities are only just beginning,” said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tripoli. “Some say that the Gaddafi party will now crumble. I doubt it: at least until they have a way out that is not straight to the ICC. Libyans have a narrative of resisting foreign pressure for years and Gaddafi will call on that to keep his core together.”

In the short term, with sanctions tightened and strikes coming, amongst the first losers will be foreign oil firms. “If you come from a country actively engaging in military action, I think it’s unlikely you will get to keep your assets,” said Smith at Control Risks. No one knows what a prolonged war might mean for the global economy. Financial markets are already struggling to absorb the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake.
“The market has come to terms with the loss of Libyan oil and trusts that Saudi Arabia can fill the gap,” said Charles Robertson, chief global economist at Renaissance Capital. “But it is the wider repercussions and the additional surprise — just days ago a successful UN resolution looked very unlikely — on top of so many other surprises this year, which is likely to further unsettle markets.”


Much will depend on what happens on the ground. In the short term, most analysts expect Gaddafi to try to step up the offensive on opposition areas and get his forces out of the open desert where they are easier to target.

But even with precision munitions, airpower is a relatively blunt tool and civilian casualties can swiftly undermine support for any intervention. In Afghanistan, the U.S. scaled back its use of air power from the earlier years of its intervention, preferring to rely on ground troops to minimise “collateral damage”. That will be less of an option in Libya.

Germany — which pointedly abstained at the UN on Thursday — discovered the potential dangers in Afghanistan in 2009 when a German officer called in a U.S. bombing raid on a fuel tanker captured by the Taliban. Most estimates put the death toll over 100 including many civilians, prompting national soul-searching in a country still scarred by the Second World War.
“We see great risks,”. German ambassador to the UN Peter Wittig said in a speech explaining the German abstention. “The likelihood of large-scale loss of life should not be underestimated. If the steps proposed turn out to be ineffective, we see the danger of being drawn into a protracted military conflict that would affect the wider region.”

But Libya’s opposition say outside intervention is their only hope to avoid a massacre. “Absolutely it is good news and the right thing to do,” said Khaeri Aboshagor, UK representative of the Libyan League for Human Rights. “I spoke to some people in Libya yesterday and they say yes, they realise there may be some civilian casualties although hopefully they will be minimal. But Gaddafi is killing us every day and we have no choice.”