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NATO embargo may also hurt struggling rebels, military analyst says

As rebels struggle to gain ground, an end to the war in Libya seems a distant objective. Military strategy expert Alexandre Vautravers says a NATO arms embargo will hurt the rebels' already complicated effort to topple Gaddafi.


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Almost a week after an international coalition began military strikes on forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi, rebels are no closer to toppling the Libyan regime. In fact, Gaddafi’s forces seem better equipped and motivated than previously thought, and disagreements have broken out between the international powers involved.

Professor Alexandre Vautravers is head of the international relations department at Webster University in Geneva and a military strategy expert and historian. FRANCE 24 asked him what can be expected of Gaddafi’s forces and Coalition efforts to topple the regime.

FRANCE 24: There is a dissonance about Muammar Gaddafi’s firepower and troop strength. What military resources does Gaddafi have and how have his troops performed so far?

Alexandre Vautravers: On paper, the strength of the Libyan armed forces is quite considerable. If you want an order of scale, the Libyan army counts more heavy armored vehicles than all of the 27 EU countries. It is a massive amount of firepower. Of course not all of this is modern, but the old equipment is still very efficient against buildings and lightly-armed guerrilla fighters –not to mention unarmed civilians. The age of this equipment is not a trustworthy measure of the damage it can perform.

In terms of troops, of the 75,000 on paper, 15,000 are really waging the fight. Against lightly-armed and disorganized people, 15,000 organised and trained military personnel are a relatively sizable fighting force.

We have already seen relatively coherent, combined-arms operations with 40 to 50 armored vehicles. This requires quite a bit of skill and training in order to organize, good logistics and good command and control facilities. It can’t be improvised.
The performance level of these armed forces has risen rather than fallen since the fighting began. It’s probable that troop morale will stand very high over the next few weeks.

F24: An arms embargo on Libya is to be enforced. Will this be a boon for the rebels?

AV: The embargo may actually be detrimental to the rebels. Even if the embargo is efficient, the Libyan army still has equipment for years, fighting day-in and day-out. It is relatively easy to enforce embargo by sea, and at the Egyptian border, near the rebel strongholds in the Benghazi area. However, the Libyan armed forces would still be receiving arms from the south, and unfortunately this border is more porous, more difficult to control. The smuggling there will to continue whether or not the arms embargo is decreed.

If you look at the last fifteen years, it’s clear these arms embargoes can never be tight. Simply, the money involved is so high that you will always find someone willing to smuggle these kinds of weapons - I’m talking about the low-tech weaponry and kits used on the front lines.

F24: There has also been criticism about the lack of an endgame. What are some of the likely outcomes of this war?

AV: A situation in which the rebellion would somehow march into Tripoli and take the city over is the least likely scenario. The rebellion does not have the organisation, the structure, the skills, the coherent armed forces [needed] to perform this action on its own right now. Two other courses of action seem more likely today.

It would be possible to establish rules of engagement among the coalition in which the movement of armed vehicles would be prohibited in certain areas; there could be curfews. This strategy could be extrememly efficient and could freeze large scale military operations and effectively protect civilians. This is basically what is in place now.

The other course of action is a mixed military and political arrangement. There could be a partition of the country – which does not necessarily mean dividing Libya. Russia and Turkey have repeatedly insisted on maintaining the country’s unity. The air exclusion zones we have seen could also be extended to ground movements. In international humanitarian law, this is called a demilitarized zone. It would of course require some kind of observation mechanisms, some kind of external arbitrage and international presence on the ground.

This is actually a very old notion dating back to the 19th century. Interestingly enough, if you look at a map of the Middle East, quite a few of these demilitarized zones were established even before the 1991 Gulf War.

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