How NATO could find itself protecting Qaddafi loyalists in Libya

NATO's mandate in Libya is to protect civilians, and with rebels now promising to attack cities loyal to Qaddafi, the alliance could be called on to protect civilians there. It is one complication that has NATO pressing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
A rebel fighter observes landscape at a rebel checkpoint some 100 miles from pro-Qaddafi-held Sirte, LIbya, early Tuesday.

With the clock ticking on the Libyan rebels’ Saturday deadline for forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi to surrender or face attack, NATO is anxiously seeking to head off a potentially bloody military onslaught.

Not only could battles for the loyalists’ remaining strongholds draw the Atlantic alliance deeper into Libya’s civil conflict, given NATO’s mandate to protect civilian life. But any fierce fighting at this point could make a future political transition all the more difficult – complicating the alliance’s quick exit from Libya.

“Getting a quiet end to this and preventing any kind of bloodbath is definitely a big priority for NATO, and for a couple of key reasons,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

“First, the ‘responsibility to protect’ is just as much NATO’s mandate when it’s about civilians who might be aligned with loyalist forces as the other way around, so NATO could see itself dragged into any last bloody fights,” he says.

“And second, NATO would very much like to see this wrapped up as quickly as possible with as little additional civil strife as possible,” he adds. “Not only does more fighting mean political stability is put off, but it also causes problems for NATO leaders who told their constituents the fall of Tripoli was the end of this campaign.”

Ultimatum to surrender

Concerns over NATO’s role in any Libyan endgame were heightened Tuesday when leaders of the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) issued their ultimatum to loyalists to surrender by Saturday.

“We can’t wait longer than that,” TNC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil told reporters in Benghazi.

First up would be Sirte, a Qaddafi army stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, he said.

NATO officials have been reluctant to offer any details, but they say the alliance is emphasizing to rebel leaders the importance of trying to resolve remaining disputes through dialogue and negotiations if possible.

That may ultimately be impossible is a situation where Qaddafi government representatives continue to refer to the ascendant rebels as “armed thugs,” while TNC representatives consider loyalists their bitter – and now vanquished – enemies.

NATO is, however, acknowledging that its mandate to protect civilian lives in Libya, as stated in the United Nations resolution that opened the door to NATO’s role, does not discriminate between civilians aligned with or against Mr. Qaddafi.

At a press conference Tuesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Col. Roland Lavoie refused to speculate on how NATO would respond if the rebels do attack Sirte, but added, “I can assure you that our mission is to protect the civilian population, and we will do that with great care.”

A desirable endgame

The shift in the rebels’ fortunes puts NATO in a new and tricky position. But there are also advantages to the rebel forces ending any remaining ambiguities about who is running Libya, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

“If the rebels persist in hitting armed Qaddafi supporters while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, then this can become the final phase of the revolution and a force for closure,” he says. “Where it becomes problematic is if it creates a humanitarian crisis – for example, if they started indiscriminately bombing Sirte.”

The Naval War College’s Gvosdev agrees. “If there’s a sense that the fall of Tripoli was not the final chapter and that the fight goes on, then it will be hard to proceed to any political transition,” he says. “There needs to be a sense of finality.”

NATO officials have suggested the alliance is ready to end its mission as soon as Libyan civilians are no longer under threat. They insist that any international nation-building duties will fall to the UN and not to NATO. Gvosdev notes that European leaders were particularly keen to suggest to their voters that the fall of Tripoli meant NATO’s role was over.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron "didn’t exactly proclaim ‘mission accomplished,’ but they came pretty close,” he says.

But Gvosdev adds that it very likely won’t be as easy for NATO to leave Libya as it would like.

“There will be questions about an international security role, maybe a need for peacekeeping forces, and if there’s a power vacuum the US will be concerned about that giving Al Qaeda in the Maghreb a chance to consolidate,” he says. “I don’t see the Arab League or the African Union taking on this international role, so it may end up falling by default to the countries that carried out the mandate that made this turn of events possible.”

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