Four days after the Western-Arab coalition decided Saturday, March 19 to enforce a no fly zone over Libya, only six Western warplanes – American, British, Canadian and French – are in the sky at any one time, debkafile's military sources disclose. This is just enough to enforce the no-fly zone over Benghazi – not the rest of Libya. It is also wholly inadequate tor collecting the basic intelligence over Tripoli and other parts of Libya for launching an offensive against Muammar Qaddafi's forces.
The assault therefore ran out of steam after the first barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the sea. Monday, a dozen Tomahawks were fired – and only at Qaddafi's coastal compounds for lack of intelligence about the rest of the thirty-one targets first postulated.
The military momentum was slowed substantially also by the haziness of the directives coming down from the coalition members' governments about the offensive's objectives. As the political leaders in Washington, London and Paris stumbled about and contradicted each other, the military commanders responded by confining their mission to the letter of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of Friday, March 18.
The disagreements between Washington, London and Paris over the essential nature of the operation and its goals brought to light the uncomfortable fact that neither the UK nor France, alone or together, possesses the air power or crews for maintaining the no fly zone.
Unless the US expands its aerial participation, most of Libyan air space will remain wide open for Qaddafi's air force to resume operations. By Tuesday, March 22, there was no sign that Washington was willing to deliver – just the reverse. The Obama administration made it clear that its participation would be confined to support functions, such as advanced electronic surveillance craft – no more warplanes.
The US Africa commander Gen. Carter Ham announced from his base in Stuttgart, Germany, that Qaddafi and his regime were not part of "our mission." He pointed out that the Security Council resolution addressed only protection of civilians and not support for the opposition.
In London, the British government insisted that Muammar Qaddafi as head of his armed forces was a legitimate target of the coalition offensive. Both UK premier David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded the coalition assault on Libya, have pinned their political hopes on their success in removing Qaddafi from power. They are pushing hard for this end in contrast to Washington.
The Cameron government has even found itself up against the supreme commander of British forces, Gen. Sir David Richards, who openly questioned Qaddafi's legitimacy as a military target.
The Obama administration, for its part, has worked itself into a jam: an acerbic argument has developed in the United States over the Libya operation's immediate and final goals.
In his latest comment, President Barack Obama Monday, March 21, stood by this opaque definition: "The goal of the United Nations-sanctioned military action in Libya is to protect citizens, not regime change – but the goal of US policy is that Muammar Qaddafi has to go."
Obama did not explain how or when he proposed to achieve this goal, although for now it is receding.
In London this week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the US will hand over control and command of the Libya operation "within days."
But who would pick up the ball? Neither France nor Britain has the military or logistical resources for taking a lead role in the coalition offensive and, anyway, who would they support?
debkafile's military sources stress that the colorful depictions of jubilant Libyan rebels encouraged by the falling Tomahawks to resume their offensive against Qaddafi's forces Monday were misleading at best.
According to our sources, their wild talk about retaking Adjabiya on the road to Benghazi referred to a single government A-Saiqa commando platoon, which defected in Benghazi in the early stages of the anti-Qaddafi uprising last month, and was able to drive just 50 kilometers southwest of the town before halting in the desert at a loss where to go next.
That platoon is the only organized force the rebels command.
Therefore, to have any chance of their revolt against Qaddafi succeeding, these insurgents would have to rely on American, British and French ground troops fighting government forces on their behalf. That is not going to happen. The US has made it perfectly clear that no American ground forces will be used in Libya, and all Britain and France can command are small commando units. The rebels must therefore be satisfied with holding Benghazi downtown and a few sectors for as long as they can.
leaving the coalition without its Arab component
The Arab component of the Western-Arab anti-Qaddafi coalition, the pre-condition for NATO participation, has faded away since the Arab League's Secretary Amr Moussa developed cold feet after his initial wholehearted support for the operation. In any case, only one Arab country, Qatar, was willing to put up four warplanes for the no-fly zone. Based in Italy, the Qatari pilots have since been directed by Emir Sheikh Al-Thani to cross the Mediterranean only up to the point where the Libyan coast is visible – not an inch further. The United Arab Emirates, initially reported as offering to take part in the Libya mission, has not sent a single plane.