US aid to Libyan rebels: How effective are nonlethal supplies?

As NATO allies send military advisers to Libyan rebels, Obama approves direct US aid in the form of nonlethal supplies. Will that be enough to prevent a humanitarian disaster?

Ben Curtis/AP
A Libyan rebel fighter manning an anti-aircraft gun flashes the victory sign as his vehicle advances towards the front line, on the outskirts of Ajdabiya, Libya, on April 20.

President Obama has approved the first direct US aid to the Libyan rebels.

But even as three of America’s NATO partners – Britain, France, and Italy – announce plans to dispatch military advisers to aid the rebels, the White House is emphasizing that the US assistance will be strictly nonlethal in nature.

With the fate of many Libyans growing darker by the day, however, some regional analysts say nothing short of a more aggressive international effort will prevent an ensuing humanitarian disaster – the very thing international involvement was supposed to stop.

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Mr. Obama has informed Congress the US will be sending $25 million worth of mostly surplus Pentagon supplies – tents, boots, and medical supplies, for example – to the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. But the White House was apparently so concerned that any supplies not be construed as lethal or as supplying the rebels with arms, that supplies like vehicles and fuel storage tanks were pulled from the list.

Libya is under a United Nations arms embargo, and the NATO allies carrying out a UN Security Council resolution authorizing international action in Libya have furiously debated whether arming the rebels would be permissible or not.

The White House says the sending of nonlethal supplies is evidence that the US remains fully engaged in the UN mandate, under the same Security Council resolution, to assist in the protection of Libyan rebels.

But with hundreds of thousands of Libyans under siege and hundreds dying in the fighting, pressure is growing on the international coalition to do more to stop a worsening humanitarian crisis.

Anthony Cordesman, a military and strategic security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says that after siding openly with the rebels, NATO is left with a choice between “farce” and “force.” Either the international coalition accepts that it must use more force against a surprisingly adaptive and resilient Colonel Qaddafi, he says, or it is left with a farce that condemns a poorly organized rebel force to merely holding on, and a population to worsening prospects.

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“Ugly and tragic as the reality is, only luck and a sudden collapse of Qaddafi’s nerve will now change this situation unless farce is replaced with force,” Dr. Cordesman says in a commentary Wednesday on the CSIS website.

It would take months “at a minimum” for European military advisers to make any progress toward organizing more effective rebel forces, Cordesman says. In the meantime, the normal trade into a country that imports 75 percent of its food is largely disrupted, he adds, especially into rebel redoubts like Misurata.

Arguing that the US and other powers have an obligation to “finish what they started” by undertaking a “humanitarian” intervention, Cordesman says the NATO powers, including the US, have to shift to a decisive air campaign – including the targeting of Qaddafi, his family, and key supporters as a consequence for the regime’s attacks on Libyan civilians.

Others say the Libyan intervention cannot succeed without foreign troops, in particular special operations forces, on the ground.

“Air power alone has been remarkably ineffective up until now,” says Alvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Sparing Misurata from a humanitarian disaster will be “impossible without the use of ground troops,” he says.

On the other hand, halting Qaddafi’s onslaught in Misurata “will almost certainly precipitate the end of the regime,” Mr. Vasconcelos says, because it would revivify the rebels and trigger an anti-Qaddafi “uprising” in Tripoli.

At the White House, officials say Obama remains opposed to sending any US troops to Libya.

Rebel leaders in Benghazi have said they do not want foreign troops on Libyan soil, although reports out of Misurata have quoted residents there begging for any foreign troops, even the Americans, to come save them.

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