News Analysis / James M. Dorsey: NATO is betting on the wrong horse in Libya: Tribes not defectors could make the difference
Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Qaddafi is hanging tough three months into punishing NATO attacks on his military and command center in Tripoli. Western hopes that the United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone would spark mass defections from within his inner circle and perhaps prompt some of his supporters to remove him from power have so far proved wishful thinking.
At their summit in the French coastal resort of Deauville, G8 leaders vowed to intensify their military campaign to oust the Libyan leader. British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters that the Libyan campaign was entering a new phase with the deployment of British and French attack helicopters.
NATO is hoping that the going for Mr. Qaddafi will get tougher with the introduction of attack helicopters because they fly lower and slower and are able to identify targets more accurately in densely populated areas while risking fewer civilian lives. NATO has so far relied on strike jets that drop munitions from an altitude of 5,000 meters.
NATO strikes planes attacked the Libyan capital Tripoli on Friday for the fifth consecutive night. Explosions were heard throughout the night and at least one device was said to have exploded near a compound used by Mr. Qaddafi. Columns of smoke were seen rising over the skyline of the city.
The introduction of helicopters constitutes a risky strategy for NATO. There is no guarantee that attack helicopters will achieve what fighter planes couldn’t. The use of helicopters will moreover make NATO more vulnerable to Libyan defenses. Operating from thousands of meters above Libya and from warships off its coast has so far spared NATO from suffering casualties. That could change with the deployment of helicopters.
The introduction of the helicopters however fails to question the assumptions underlying the military campaign. To be sure, Mr. Qaddafi has been weakened and a number of his senior aides, including Justice Minister Mustafa Abd Al Jalil, who now heads the rebel’s transitional council, former Foreign Minister and intelligence chief Moussa Koussa and Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem have defected. Operating from Qatar, Mr. Koussa now spend his time helping NATO identify targets.
Western officials, Libyan rebels and the Western media have hailed the defections of Mr. Koussa and others as evidence that Mr. Qaddafi’s demise is imminent and have urged others within the Libyan leaders to follow suit if they want to avoid being charged with war crimes. Yet, fact of the matter is that the defections have not brought Mr. Qaddafi’s regime any closer to collapse. Many of the defectors had no power base of their own and Mr. Qaddafi ensured that they would not be able to do so by frequently shuffling his government. If the defections have done anything, they have strengthened Mr. Qaddafi resolve and reinforced the position of hardliners around him.
The international community as well as NATO would be better advised to focus on tribes still loyal to Mr. Qaddafi rather than on individuals eager to save their skin. Many of Libya’s 140 tribes have been sitting on the sidelines waiting to see who emerges victorious from the battle between Mr. Qaddafi and his opponents. They are often internally divided but have been reluctant to take sides because they fear that change in Libya would deprive them of the right granted to them by Mr. Qaddafi to run their own affairs even if they recognize that their position has been weakened by urbanization and inter-marriage.
Loyalist tribes – foremost among whom Mr. Qaddafi’s own Qadhafa clan as well as the Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe, and Maqraha - constitute the backbone of the Libyan leader’s military. A spread of the revolt to areas controlled by them would substantially weaken Mr. Qaddafi by forcing him to spread his forces ever thinner.
Libyan rebels unlike the international community and NATO recognize the importance of the tribes. The rebels and Mr. Qaddafi have recently engaged in a public relations battle to project their support among the tribes. Mr. Qaddafi’s regime two weeks invited foreign journalists to meet with tribal leaders who called on the rebels to return to the fold and focus their wrath on NATO. In response, rebel leaders in Benghazi met with 60 leaders of tribes in the rebel-controlled east of the country who pledge allegiance to their efforts to topple the Libyan leader.
Weaning the tribes away from Mr. Qaddafi may not be that difficult. Fault lines exist and are becoming increasingly apparent. The fortunes of the Maqraha started to wane already more than a decade ago even though Mr. Koussa’s successor as intelligence chief, Abdallah Al Sanusi, is a scion of the tribe.
The Maqraha have not forgotten that they bore the brunt of Mr. Qaddafi’s dispute with his long-serving prime minister and number two, Maj. Abd Al Salam Jallud, who was put under house arrest in the early 1990s because he opposed the Libyan leader’s efforts to rebuild his bridges to the West. Members of the Warfalla staged a failed coup at the time to stop the Maqarha from getting most of the most important positions in the regime. As a result, Marqarha tribesmen were removed from positions in government and services in the tribe’s stronghold around the city of Sabha were significantly reduced.
Mr. Qaddafi’s grip on his own Qadhafa tribe is similarly precarious ever since the Libyan leader ordered the killing 26 years ago of a prominent tribal leader, Co. Hassan Ishkal, because of his opposition to Mr. Qaddafi’s policy.
Effective use of helicopters by NATO and increased financial and political support for the rebels could indeed further level the battlefield in Libya and make loyalty of the tribes ever more crucial to Mr. Qaddafi’s survival. Seeking to drive a wedge between Mr. Qaddafi and the loyalist tribes would likely produce far higher dividends than encouraging more inconsequential departures of members of Mr. Qaddafi’s inner circle.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)