Yesterday, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported that the French army armed the rebels in the western Nefousa Mountains, early June. According to a French military spokesman, France dropped guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions to support the rebels who were under attack by the Libyan military. This decision doesn’t only mark a new step in the international intervention, it is also a further escalation of a very complicated conflict. France didn’t notify its NATO allies, probably because supplying arms to the rebels is highly controversial within NATO. As Anne Applebaum pointed out in the Washington Post: “the Libyan expedition is an Anglo-French project and has been from the beginning.” Italy, one of the leaders of Operation Unified Protector, even called for a temporary cease-fire and a diplomatic settlement.
The reason to supply the rebels with weapons is clear: to break the deadlock in order for the rebels to gain ground and capture the Libyan captial Tripoli. The current stalemate was created by the NATO intervention. The rebel army was able to regroup and conquer a few cities because of the bombing of forces loyal to Qadhafi by NATO. However, the rebels remain unable to defeat Qadhafi. His forces are much stronger than expected, and the rebels are not organized and underequipped.
For Western countries, it can be tempting to support the rebels to force a breakthrough and end the war. However, removing Qadhafi by force will not lead to peace. On the contrary, the current war is just a preamble to a possible bloody civil war that might erupt as soon as Qadhafi is removed from power. The tribes from the eastern part of the country have always been rebellious and uncontrollable. They were the first to rise up against Italian colonialism, and they were the first to rise up against Qadhafi’s dictatorial regime. It is unclear who these rebels are and what their goals are, apart from the removal of Qadhafi. There are hardly any institutions in Libya, nor is there any form of civil society. Without a common enemy, a battle for power among these tribes is likely to erupt. That civil war will be even worse if the rebels are supplied by NATO. The supply of weapons will cause more fighting and more (civilian) casualties. Afghanistan, after the defeat of the Soviet Union, is a good example of such a situation.
Instead of letting the Libyan war escalate by supplying the rebels, NATO should pursue and facilitate an immediate cease-fire, as demanded by United Nations Security Council resolution 1973. The UN resolution demands the protection of Libyan civilians, instead of actively supporting the rebels. If Qadhafi is attacking unarmed civilians, NATO should protect these civilians, not by supplying them with weapons, but by eliminating Qadhafi’s forces.
The UN resolution “Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians” and “Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis.” That’s the mandate of NATO Operation Unified Protector.
There are a few steps the international community should take. First: start protecting civilians instead of bombing them. Second, stop arming the rebels, because that will cause the war to escalate. Third, international organizations like the UN, African Union, EU and NATO should negotiate a cease-fire and a temporary settlement between the two parties. In the mean time, NATO forces are to engage only when Qadhafi threatens civilians. Stability in Libya can only be achieved if the transition is gradual and relatively peaceful.