Airstrikes pound Tripoli as NATO escalates Libya campaign

An increase in NATO strikes along with British and French commitment to deploy attack helicopters may be aimed at breaking a stalemate in the conflict.

Darko Bandic/AP
Sky over Tripoli, Libya, is illuminated by explosions during an airstrike, early Tuesday, May 24. NATO warplanes were repeatedly hitting Tripoli early Tuesday in what appears to be the heaviest night of bombing of the Libyan capital since the start of the air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi's forces.

The Libyan capital withstood the heaviest bombardment yet from NATO aircraft early Tuesday morning, as explosions rocked the area around Col. Muammar Qaddafi's compound.

The strikes – combined with a fresh commitment by Britain and France to deploy highly precise attack helicopters in Libya – appeared to signal a NATO escalation to break the current stalemate, if not actually target the Libyan leader.

"I think it is an absolute sign of [NATO] intensification, soon after the announcement of new military helicopters to be deployed," says an opposition activist in the capital, where some 20 thunderous blasts came in 30 minutes. "This sends a message that the focus is on the regime stronghold. This suggests that [NATO] really wants to decapitate this killing machine, rather than eat away at it."

NATO said it was targeting a facility adjacent to Col. Qaddafi's compound for vehicles that were "active" in resupplying pro-Qaddafi forces that mounted "attacks against innocent civilians." The Western military alliance, which took the lead from US military planners soon after a mid-March UN Security Council resolution authorized "all necessary means" to protect civilians, says it is not targeting individuals.

But the intensity of bombardment in the vicinity of Qaddafi's headquarters early Tuesday convinced some in Tripoli otherwise. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “We are very much behind the intensification of the military campaign and … so is France.”

NATO's escalation has heartened the beleaguered opposition movement, although it remains unclear whether military might alone can tip the balance in Libya. And even if it does, what would come next is uncertain.

"The more they bomb, the higher our spirits," says the activist in Tripoli, who says Libyans came out to cheer and whistle from their rooftops. After the bombardment, he says, Qaddafi loyalists patrolled the streets "shooting in the air and at walls to silence everyone."

Fading optimism in rebels' de facto capital

A European analyst in the eastern city of Benghazi says that the initial optimism, elation, and energy of rebel gains in the three-month civil war has been "fading" in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. Rebel control in eastern Libya has solidified but not expanded, despite some 2,500 NATO airstrikes in the last two months.

"There is much less talk about liberating Tripoli these days," says the analyst, who could not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "They're increasingly sitting back and assuming that NATO will take care of it for them, but I'm yet to find a military historian who can point to a conflict that was won from the air alone."

Opposition politicians are politicking "for their own future," he says, communications with Tripoli are "terrible," and there is "no real military chain of command" that can take on pro-Qaddafi forces.

The opposition – and NATO also – appear to be betting on military pressure breaking the stalemate, despite legal restrictions of the UN Security Council resolution that authorized NATO strikes.

Libyan officials – and some nations that originally voted in favor of the UN resolution, such as Russia – say that NATO has overstepped the UN mandate and made regime change its real aim.

The UN resolution specifically rules out foreign "boots on the ground." But in terms of targeting Qaddafi, some Western leaders, especially in the US, France, and Britain, have more than hinted that going after Libya's command structure might be interpreted to mean removing the man at its head.

"NATO is responding to demands [from London and Paris] to up the cadence by whatever means," says the European analyst.

But the rebel leadership is likely also to be receiving messages that such a push is "not an end in itself, nor sustainable," and so opponents of Qaddafi must up their game, too.

"Certainly a long, drawn-out status quo is not sustainable at all," says the Tripoli activist. Qaddafi may be running out of money, support and options, he suggests, but NATO also does not have unlimited time or resources to devote to Libya, with domestic elections and other problems to contend with.

"My interpretation is that they want this finished as quickly as possible, and are demonstrating this recently," says the rebel activist. "But [NATO] are restricted by conflicting ideas within the coalition as well as restriction from the [UNSC] mandate itself."

Uncertain what would follow Qaddafi's fall

While few expect the rag-tag rebel forces to march on Tripoli, hundreds of miles away against a relatively well-equipped pro-Qaddafi army, the removal of Qaddafi could dramatically upend things, as the departure of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year inspired Arabs across the region to revolt.

"Clearly if Qaddafi were to go in one way or another, it would be a huge change in the situation," says the European analyst. "Exactly what would then happen remains a big question. After such a long period of pressure on Tripoli, would people power be enough? Would the rest of Qaddafi's forces lay down arms without significant numbers of armed rebels on the ground?"

The US State Department's highest-ranking diplomat on Mideast affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, is currently in Benghazi to boost US solidarity with the opposition's interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC).

The visit was "another signal of the US's support" for the rebels National Transitional Council, according to a US statement. The NTC was "a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people." Mr. Feltman on Tuesday invited the rebels to set up an office in Washington, but the US has yet to officially recognize the council, as an alternative leadership to Qaddafi's nearly 42-year rule, unlike Italy, France, and others.

Highly precise helicopters could help end stalemate

France, which has taken a lead role in supporting the rebels both diplomatically and militarily, on Monday announced that NATO would bringing attack helicopters to Libya, which – with better radar systems and the ability to identify targets at much closer range and in real time – could make a difference on the battlefield.

French defense chief Gerard Longuet said the French and British helicopters would be able to target pro-Qaddafi military hardware in urban settings, while limiting civilian casualties.

"There has been no doubt that the rebels have been unable to take advantage of what the airstrikes have been doing," Paul Beaver, a defense analyst in London, told the BBC World Service radio.

"The air campaign has been relatively successful, but what we know from Kosovo in 1999 is that you can't destroy every tank," said Mr. Beaver. "In Kosovo, we thought that 250 Serbian tanks had been destroyed, it turned out to be 13. We know already that NATO has attacked one particular tank [in Libya] more than five times, because they've been hoodwinked into it by Qaddafi forces lighting a little fire to make it look as if it's a vehicle that's got its engine running."

"Very clever things are being done," added Beaver, "which is why you need helicopters that can get in, and they are more discriminating than aircraft at 15,000 feet."

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