By Stephen Morgan
Last week NATO shamelessly weighed-in on the side of the rebels with the help of special forces on the ground. Without it, the rebels would never have won. There is now talk that NATO has broken international law. So what role did they really play?
“Subka and his unit waited at the rebel frontline, known as Kilometre Sixty, aboard a column of battered, black pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and a few tanks recently captured from Gaddafi’s forces. “We are with the England team,” he told the Guardian “They advise us.”
Special forces from Britain and France are on the ground advising on strategy and tactics for the coming assault and pin pointing targets for NATO airstrikes, in order to clear the path for the rebel advance. Resistance from loyalists has been stiff, but Subka is confident. “We don’t worry about those units – they are Nato’s concern.”
However, on Friday NATO was quick to deny the crucial role it was playing. Al Arabiya reported a press conference at which its spokesperson Lungescu insisted that NATO was sticking to its United Nations mandate, limited to protecting civilians from any attacks. “There is no military coordination with the rebels,” she said.
When asked for his opinion on the statement Shashank Joshi, a Libyan war expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, pulled no punches. The NATO denials are “absolute rubbish,” he said. “There’s overwhelming evidence that NATO was not only helping the rebels but that it was a decisive and critical partner to the rebels. It was really engaged in a close and intimate level of coordination and support, without which the rebels could not have won this conflict, so I don’t believe a single word NATO is saying,” he added.
More and more information is now coming to light on the decisive role played by NATO in the fall of Tripoli. Moreover, while kept secret until now, we are also learning more about how special forces from Britain, France, Qatar and Jordan helped pave the way for the victory. It is now clear that Gaddafi would probably still be in power without them.
In an op-ed on Saturday Andrew Rawnsley said “ I asked a member of the National Security Council whether there was any chance that the rebellion could have overthrown Gaddafi without outside assistance. He responded bluntly: “None at all. There’s no chance they could have done it without us.”
Just two weeks ago the situation was entirely different. Everything seemed bogged down in a protracted stalemate on all fronts. The assassination of General Younes had cast doubts over the opposition’s ability to remain united enough to overthrow the regime and conversely, Gaddafi appeared to be more durable than anyone had expected. All eyes were fixed on political efforts to find a negotiated settlement, which seemed the only plausible solution to end the conflict.
What broke the stalemate in Libya was the West’s decision to make a radical change in its strategy of regime change and the character of its military intervention through NATO. With fears about splits in NATO and even doubts about its very existence if the mission floundered, together with the overhanging fear that the West would again be held responsible for another failed state, envoys bent over backwards in talks with the regime to find a way out of the conflict, even to the point of offering Gaddafi the possibility of staying in Libya, exempt from ICC prosecution.
But Gaddafi wouldn’t budge and he evidently had the support of his inner circle, who gave no indication that they were likely to cave in. Caught between a clicking clock and a closed door, the West decided it had no choice but to launch a major military offensive, in the hope that it would force Gaddafi to surrender.
NATO swung into action quickly. Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller from the Washington Post reported that NATO and U.S. military and intelligence officials had revealed that, ”an opposition strategy (was) put in place two weeks ago with the advice of British, French and Qatari special forces on the ground”
Preparations for a possible attack upon Tripoli had, in fact, been going on much longer. British, French, Qatari and Jordanian special forces had spent months training rebels from the Western Mountains for a future attack on Tripoli. Eventually, they succeeded in organizing the raggedy groups of rebels into a cohesive force, which was prepared to follow an organized battle plan, under a central command.
On the key Saturday, August 13, when the rebel forces advanced on coastal and southern towns and rebels in Misrata made a determined push on Zlitan, TIME reported that NATO flew 105 sorties “including 36 strike missions against targets near Tripoli, Brega, Gharyan, Sirte and Zlitan. The targets included military facilities, command and control nodes, and both surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile sites.”
A reporter with the rebels described the scene around Zlitan, “Testimony to the deadly effect of Nato’s bombing was evident along the highway leading out of the city. Concrete buildings used as bunkers by Gaddafi’s forces were flattened, while tanks were ripped apart, their turrets and tracks strewn across the road. Further south, all that remained of an ammunition truck was a blackened carpet of splinters.”
When asked if NATO was acting as the rebel’s air force a NATO official acknowledged in a typically oblique way that “the effect of what we were doing was not dissimilar.”
Such precision bombing wasn’t possible without the profession expertise of special forces troops on the ground spotting targets and advising on tactics. This was underlined by another report in the Guardian, which explained that “the information from the ground gave British commanders the confidence to order RAF pilots to release laser and GPS-guided bombs and missiles on buildings identified as being used by Gaddafi forces. (even including a Turkish restaurant!)
However, the Washington Post revealed that these special forces also involved undercover US intelligence units. “CIA operatives inside the country intercepted communications within the government” providing “a deeper understanding of just how badly Gaddafi’s command structure had crumbled.” The effect was devastating. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that NATO had destroyed Gaddafi’s military communications to such an extent that “he is forced to use the TV to send messages to his troops about where to attack and defend.”
Intelligence gathered was, in turn, passed onto the rebels on the ground to facilitate their advance. NATO “provided a lot of imagery on the locations of the Gaddafi forces, so, as the rebels were getting into their positions when they came around the south and up into the west side of Tripoli, (they) had a good sense of where (Gaddafi’s) forces were at.”
In this way, NATO obliterated Gaddafi’s defenses often in advance of rebels reaching each town and/or during key moments in the battles. The BBC reported that “Nato’s relentless pounding of armour and artillery east of Zawiya greatly softened up government units, breaking down much of the resistance that would otherwise have slowed the rebel path.”
Illustrating how effective the attacks were and how grateful the rebels were, the UK Independent printed an interview with a rebel soldier involved in the attack on Sabratha. “Mr Nato came and fired six missiles at seven o’clock in the morning. Boom, boom, boom and it was all over,” “Oh yes, we are all very grateful to Mr Nato here.” Asked why he thought they would win, another rebel replied “I believe in Allah – and Nato.”
However, the preferred policy of the West was still to try to negotiate a political settlement, by surrounding Tripoli and forcing Gaddafi back to the negotiating table on their terms. The Financial Times spelled out Western concerns on August 17, when it warned that “the rebels’ commanders must take care not to jeopardize the stability of the post-Gaddafi state by launching an all-out assault on Tripoli. Even if successful, such an attack would almost certainly result in a bloodbath among rebels, regime supporters and civilians. The seeds of vengeance and anarchy would be sown.”
But by now the situation was no longer in NATO’s hands. The rebels had the wind behind their sails and an unstoppable momentum had built up. Intoxicated with their successes, the rebels sights were fixed on one goal only- getting as quickly as possible to the center of Tripoli and hoisting the rebel flag on Martyrs’ Square. Once reports of uprisings in the capital came through, nothing was going to hold them back. neither NATO nor the NTC, nor even their own commanders.
Consequently NATO had no choice but to go the whole nine yards and hope for the best. As the rebels approached Tripoli, global intelligence agency STRATFOR described the scene “What is happening now is the movement of the forces into attack positions, logistical support being brought in, preliminary targeted artillery fire and air strikes with special operations teams already in place doing careful targeting, and psychological warfare against the defenders.”
Identifying the pivotal role of NATO should not take away from the incredible heroism and tenacity of the rebel fighters. In particular, the final word must go to the courageous people of Tripoli. Had they not risen up, the rebel fighters would probably have been stalled at the gates of the city. As the Guardian stated, “The secret of the uprising’s final days of success lay in a popular revolt in the working-class districts of the capital, which did most of the hard work of throwing off the rule of secret police and military cliques. It succeeded so well that when revolutionary brigades entered the city from the west, many encountered little or no resistance, and they walked right into the center of the capital.”
Worrying pockets of resistance from Gaddafi forces remain, which suggest that the West is not quite won. Indeed, the Libyan “Wild West” will take a long time to be tamed. ‘Order first, then law will follow” was a motto of the earlier American frontier settlers. Bringing order to Libya’s “Wild West” is likely to be a difficult and bloody affair and, until such time as the multitude of different militias and tribes agree to lay down their arms, power and law may well continue to rest mainly in the hands of gunslingers.