America treads carefully as Libya digs in for civil war

Expectations of an early collapse of Col Qaddafi¿s personality-cult regime in Libya have ebbed amid something of a stalemate, in which neither side can wield a knockout punch.

Libya has slowed the momentum of the Arab revolt, showing that not all the region's revolutions are so peaceful and fragrant as to be named after a flower or a tree. "Jasmine Revolution" may have suited Tunisia where, like in Egypt, unarmed crowds brought down a police state through sheer force of will and the justice of their cause. But Col Muammar Qaddafi has bathed Libya in the blood of thousands over the past week, and the iconic imagery of the country's uprising is that of untrained and lightly armed revolutionaries heroically confronting Qaddafi's better-armed professionals.

Expectations of an early collapse of Qaddafi's personality-cult regime have ebbed amid something of a stalemate, in which neither side can wield a knockout punch: Qaddafi's forces wield far superior fire power, but can't match the rebels in number or passion. While he's lost an extraordinary degree of control in a matter of days, however, Qaddafi still commands the loyalty of enough people willing to kill and die for him to make the outcome far from certain.

Unlike Qaddafi's forces, the rebels have no air power and little armour or artillery to throw into a battle for the capital. It's not entirely a matter of hardware, of course: in describing how General Franco's fascist army planned to capture Madrid after four of their columns had surrounded the Spanish capital in 1936, General Emilio Mola said the decisive factor would be the "fifth column" of fascist supporters inside the city. Turns out, there weren't all that many of those, and Madrid only fell in March 1939, after the democratic forces had been defeated everywhere else.

The Spanish Civil War analogy might sound a little unfortunate (the fascists won that one) and it operates in reverse: in Libya, the capital is held by a well-armed professional military more akin to Franco's fascists, while a rag-tag citizens' army expands its control over much of the rest of the country.

Still, to take Tripoli, the anti-Qaddafi opposition would have to rely heavily on its "fifth column", whose importance to the military equation was underscored last Friday. The Guardian reports that Qaddafi was forced to deploy dozens of tanks and many fighters to keep protesters off the street after Friday prayers, demonstrating how opposition within the city weakens his ability to defend its perimeter. Even then, the rebels appear to lack the muscle right now to storm the citadel, and the casualty toll is steadily mounting - as is the humanitarian crisis. The disruption of Libya's energy exports has also seen a spike in world oil prices.

So, President Barack Obama is facing growing pressure from both conservative hawks and liberal interventionists to order some sort of military action to tip the scales in favour of the rebels. Even many interventionists recognise that American soldiers would not be welcomed into another Arab country - nor is the US military remotely inclined to open a "third front" in the Muslim world - so instead the interventionists urge Mr Obama to use the US military to enforce a no-fly zone that would prevent Qaddafi from using his air power to shred rebel forces. Even some in the Libyan opposition, which is resolutely opposed to any foreign military presence on their country's soil, have supported the idea, although winning UN Security Council authorisation remains unlikely.

And the US military is clearly sceptical: Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that even imposing a no-fly zone is a combat operation, which begins with bombing Libyan air defences on the ground, some of them in urban areas where civilian casualties might result. And Qaddafi could constantly provoke further bombing raids by turning on radar stations in civilian areas, risking casualties and reinforcing his narrative that the rebellion is, in fact, part of a foreign invasion.

The military is also leery of "mission creep". The catastrophic Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 that left more than 1,000 Somalis and 17 Americans dead arose out of an original mission to simply protect humanitarian supplies. Sure, Qaddafi can kill lots of Libyans from the air, but until now his forces have been doing most of their killing on the ground. And if a no-fly zone fails to stop his forces, pressure would grow to intervene on the ground. The military and much of the political establishment is leery of being sucked into a poorly understood civil war, and being unable to leave.

"What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" the former secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously asked of Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 1996, in response to the military's reluctance to intervene in Bosnia. But the military today would point to Afghanistan and Iraq, and warn that when committing your military to a far-off conflict in which you fail to impose your will, other adversaries become less intimidated by your military power.

For now, the consensus in western capitals appears to be against a rush to direct intervention, even a no-fly zone. That could change, of course, if Qaddafi were suddenly to unleash massacres from the skies - as Franco notoriously did in the Basque town of Guernica, to continue the Spanish analogy. The Libyan leader may even be aware of that, because he has thus far refrained from using his air force to flatten rebel-held towns, and may still imagine he could negotiate a deal with his opponents.

So the stand-off looks increasingly likely to be a protracted one, with the rebels building their military capabilities, holding their ground and imposing a psychological siege that further corrodes government forces. And it's likely that if there is intervention, it will be more in line with boosting those rebel capabilities by ensuring access to weapons and training, and disrupting the functioning of the regime. But the more bitter and protracted it is, the more unpredictable it becomes. After all, when western governments were prevaricating in the early 1990s over supporting besieged Bosnia, an "international brigade" started to arrive to fill the gap - in the form of Arab mujahideen, fresh from the Afghan jihad.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon