Libya might yet descend into tribal anarchy and civil war as Iraq and Afghanistan did. But on Sunday, with the rebels’ entry into Tripoli, the European leaders who led NATO’s campaign to aid them − French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron − could allow themselves a few moments of satisfaction.
Five months after it began helping the rebels, NATO has tipped the scales in their favor. The many skeptics said the West could never unseat Muammar Gadhafi’s regime by air strikes alone, that the strikes hit too many civilians, that this was a waste of military resources.
Two months ago, it seemed as if Europe had lost patience. The rebels were treading water, and calls for stopping the air strikes grew. But in reality, NATO was quietly revamping its mission. It tightened operational coordination with the rebels and gave them arms, equipment, military advisers and trainers. It also posted spotters who spoke both Arabic and English among the rebels to keep air strikes from hitting civilians and rebel forces. The spotters were trained to identify enemy targets and relay real-time information to NATO aircraft, guiding the bombs to the most important targets.
Over the last month, NATO planes flew almost 20,000 sorties over Libya and conducted 7,500 air strikes that broke the regime’s resistance. Speed was essential: Next month, NATO was slated to discuss a third extension of the mission, while the UN General Assembly, with its anti-Western majority, was planning to assail NATO for exceeding its UN mandate of creating a no-fly zone and protecting civilians.
The mandate definitely didn’t include close aerial support of the rebel forces. But NATO went ahead anyway, and has now silenced the critics.
The big question is who will stay in Libya to help the transitional government impose order. NATO is sticking to its decision not to send in ground forces, and neither the Arab League nor the European Union seems to be interested in the job. But these are tomorrow’s problems. For today, it’s permissible to celebrate the downfall of the fourth Arab tyrant this year, following those in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
Officially, this is NATO’s achievement. But in practice, two key members of the alliance will have trouble claiming credit for it. Angela Merkel’s Germany initially opposed the military intervention in Libya, reversing course only toward the end. And NATO’s superpower, the United States, doesn’t come out looking like a victor despite having contributed vital military and logistic assistance to the effort.
While the leaders of Britain, France and Italy led the hawks, U.S. President Barack Obama was dragged into battle almost against his will. Nor did the Republicans, who lambasted him for going to war without Congress’ approval, escape unscathed.
Since the wave of revolutions began in January, Obama has reacted to every development belatedly. Only last week did he finally demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad go. At no point has the U.S. been the initiator, or even a major influence over events.
Now, his administration will have to coordinate a policy on Syria − once again belatedly. In Syria’s case, the main players are Assad’s patron in Tehran, which will do whatever it can to preserve his regime, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now backing the opposition.
Syrian opposition leaders met in Istanbul yesterday to plan for the day after Assad’s fall. They know who’s in charge − and he isn’t in Washington.
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