Thursday, March 31, 2011
NATO Warns Rebels Against Attacking Libyan Civilians Pt. 1
Members of the NATO alliance have sternly warned the rebels in Libya not to attack civilians as they push against the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, according to senior military and government officials.
As NATO takes over control of airstrikes in Libya and the Obama administration considers new steps to tip the balance of power there, the coalition has told the rebels that the fog of war will not shield them from possible bombardment by NATO planes and missiles, just as the regime’s forces have been punished.
“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Qaddafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official. “We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don’t confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians.”
The warnings, and intense consultations within the NATO-led coalition over its rules for attacking anyone who endangers innocent civilians, come at a time when the civil war in Libya is becoming ever more chaotic, and the battle lines ever less distinct. They raise a fundamental question that the military is now grappling with: Who in Libya is a civilian?
In the early days of the campaign, the civilian population needing protection was hunkered down in cities like Benghazi, behind a thin line of rebel defenders who were easily distinguishable from the attacking government forces.
That is no longer always the case. Armed rebels — some in organized militias, as are other young men who have picked up rifles to fight them — have moved out of Benghazi in an effort to take control of other population centers along the way, they hope, to seizing Tripoli.
Meanwhile, fresh intelligence this week showed that Libyan government forces were supplying assault rifles to civilians in the town of Surt, which is populated largely by Qaddafi loyalists. These civilian Qaddafi sympathizers were seen chasing rebel forces in nonmilitary vehicles like sedans and trucks, accompanied by Libyan troops, according to American military officers.
The increasing murkiness of the battlefield, as the freewheeling rebels advance and retreat and as fighters from both sides mingle among civilians, has prompted NATO members to issue new “rules of engagement” spelling out when the coalition may attack units on the ground in the name of protecting civilians.
It was unclear how the rules are changing — especially on the critical questions surrounding NATO’s mandate and whether it extends to protecting rebels who are no longer simply defending civilian populated areas like Benghazi, but are instead are themselves on the offensive.
“This is a challenge,” said a senior alliance military officer. “The problem of discriminating between combatant and civilian is never easy, and it is compounded when you have Libyan regime forces fighting irregular forces, like the rebel militias, in urban areas populated by civilians.”
Oana Lungescu, the senior NATO spokeswoman, emphasized that NATO was taking action because Qaddafi’s forces were attacking Libyan civilians, including shelling cities with artillery. She said that if the rebels do likewise, the organization will move to stop them, too, because the United Nations Security Council resolution “applies to both sides.”
“Our goal, as mandated by the U.N., is to protect civilians against attacks or threats of attack, so those who target civilians will also be targets for our forces, because that resolution will be applied across the board,” she said.
But it is no simple matter to follow that logic.
“Qaddafi is trying to take advantage of this mixing of combatants and noncombatants to deter NATO from striking,” said one Obama administration official who was briefed on the intelligence reports.
Even though rebel forces were in retreat on Wednesday, the civil war has seen repeated advances and retreats by both sides, and that is expected to continue. The highest concern is not how to deal with fighters who are loyal to the regime, but how NATO would respond to rebels firing on a town of Qaddafi sympathizers, like Surt.
Calls by some NATO members to provide heavier weapons to the rebels suggest that these worries will only intensify.
Cont. to Pt 2 .