NATO in Libya: Just Like Kosovo?
by Francesco F. Milan
Since the United States launched operation ‘Odyssey Dawn’ in mid-March, the military confrontation against Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi has been under assessment: analysts have been trying to come up with a clear identification of its underlying objectives, limits and scope, beyond what is written on official statements. Especially since NATO was put in command, references to its 1999 operation against Yugoslav armed forces led by Slobodan Milosevic have abounded. However, despite the obvious analogy brought by the ‘air campaign’ element, the two operations have a few fundamental differences, which make any superficial comparison potentially misleading.
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NATO’s 1999 campaign was based on two main objectives, namely halting Milosevic’s attacks in Kosovo and achieving a significant reduction of Yugoslavia’s military power.
In June 1999, after almost three months of NATO bombing, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, which called for the withdrawal of all Yugoslav military, paramilitary and police forces from Kosovo, the deployment of NATO peacekeeping forces and the creation of a UN administration in the region. NATO bombings started in order to enforce an earlier UNSC Resolution (No. 1199), which asked, in September 1998, to put an end to hostilities between Albanian irregular forces and Yugoslav armed forces and Serbian militias operating in Kosovo.
Aiming at neutralizing Yugoslavia’s military capability, NATO’s airstrikes hit military infrastructures, as well as infrastructures that could be used for either civilian or military purposes, such as bridges, energy plants and party headquarters.
As already stated, one of the main objectives was to push Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo, in order to stop the repression carried out against the Albanian population.
When NATO started its Kosovo campaign, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had already been fighting against Yugoslavian troops for at least three years, likely supported by foreign countries in terms of military training. In the last weeks of the air campaign, KLA also cooperated with NATO forces: its units’ manoeuvring and engagements helped in making Serbian troops exposed and an easy target for NATO forces. When, in the last days of the conflict, NATO was threatening a land invasion of Kosovo, Special Forces from some of its member countries were also deployed. They cooperated with the KLA in intelligence gathering and in preparing the political ground for transition at local level.
NATO forces clearly had the main share of responsibilities in what was the main objective of the campaign (pushing Milosevic’s troops out of Kosovo), something that KLA could never have achieved alone. However, the most important element in this case is that NATO’s opponents’ leadership had a viable alternative to its direct and full engagement in Kosovo: Milosevic could still retreat, without giving up his power: KLA’s role, however important, was secondary. Eventually, the main reasons for the Serbian leader to withdraw his troops from Kosovo were not the (questionable) effectiveness of NATO’s airpower, or KLA’s military strength (also questionable), but the credibility of NATO’s threat to Yugoslav military power, and the presence of a way out for Milosevic.
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In Libya, NATO is officially in charge of enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo requested by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973, but also of protecting the population from violence. The objectives stated in the resolution are, among others, to reach a ceasefire between governmental forces and rebels and to protect civilians with all means short of employment of a foreign occupation force.
NATO’s operation ‘Unified Protector’ definitely has similarities with the Kosovo campaign. As already mentioned, NATO’s task is to enforce the no-fly zone and the arms embargo requested in the UNSC Resolution, which was implemented in order to prevent Gaddafi’s Air Force from bombing rebels and civilians. NATO is also in charge of protecting civilians from attacks or the threat of attacks, i.e. NATO warships and aircrafts are allowed to engage targets that might be considered a threat to civilians’ security – a bombing campaign quite similar to Kosovo’s.
The main and substantial difference with Kosovo is that the whole campaign is not conceived to ‘push Gaddafi back’; the Libyan dictator has nowhere to be pushed back to. In addition, Gaddafi clearly showed a defiant stance towards not only NATO but also towards the entire international community. His surrender does not seem a likely option and his diplomatic isolation deprives him of any potential safe haven, should he decide to flee.
The key goal for NATO clearly becomes the facilitation of Libyan insurrection, something that goes well beyond the attainment of a ceasefire, especially for the extensive role that rebels fighting in the streets play in the Libyan scenario. Now that the military confrontation with Gaddafi has been launched, it seems that the only way out for NATO comes from the dictator’s destitution. With no authority in power, unless a solution that includes Gaddafi’s regime members is found, countries involved in the Libyan war could suddenly find themselves trapped into a state-building matter, a situation they most definitely want to avoid.
Besides, so far only the United Kingdom and France have declared to be ready to contemplate a ground invasion, should rebels fail in overcoming governmental forces. NATO, therefore, cannot even rely on the threat of using land forces, a strategic move that did pay off in Kosovo. As for Libyan rebels, despite their formal organization within the so-called Libyan Free Army, they can hardly be seen as a cohesive and effective insurgent force, being mainly composed of volunteers with little to no military experience. They have been fighting against governmental troops for the last three months, and despite having been able to conquer a few cities in the East of the country, for the moment their offensive seems to have lost momentum. To continue the comparison with Kosovo, Libyan rebels are not the KLA: they don’t have the same degree of military experience, nor the same strength. However, while responsibilities for the outcome of the Kosovo campaign were mainly depending on NATO’s actions, in Libya a successful campaign depends mainly on the rebels’ military success.
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The general idea that Libya’s future will be Gaddafi-free has been confirmed over the last weekend, when a ceasefire request sent via letter by the regime’s Prime Minister has been rebuffed by NATO members. Moreover, during the opening works of 2011 G8 summit in France, Russia proposed to act as a mediator, finding other countries potentially interested in the offer, upon the condition that Gaddafi will step down – a condition Russia itself supports. This means there might be a small opportunity to free Libya from Gaddafi without relying solely on military power. The alternative is a lingering military confrontation, with no clearly visible political solution on the horizon.
Context and conditions of the crises in Kosovo and Libya are quite different. While the former could, and was, solved through a show of force, the latter, now that military operations have started, needs more than purely military means in order to see a conclusion.
The possibility to reach at least a ceasefire now depends on Gaddafi’s will to take a step back, something he never wanted to do. If Russia’s mediation plan will eventually be implemented, his destitution will be the main issue at stake. As Milosevic had his own way out, there might be a chance to give one to Gaddafi, too. Maybe as ephemeral as Milosevic’s, but one nonetheless.