From Monday’s statements by President Obama, General Ham (commander of the Africa Command), and the State Department, it’s clear that the United States is committed to regime change in Libya, to toppling Muammar Qaddafi. But the president and the military are being very, very careful not to tie the UN Security Council resolution, whose authority is supposed to be limited, to the broader goal of getting rid of Qaddafi. There is, however, a lot of gray area. And a lot of that gray area has to do with whether armed civilians fighting Qaddafi are civilians who deserve protection under the “no fly zone” created by UNSC Resolution 1973, or not, and if so, how would that protection work? Doesn’t it mean that US military forces are, in effect, taking sides in a civil war?
In his remarks in Chile, Obama was explicit on regime change:
“I also have stated that it is US policy that Qaddafi needs to go. And we got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy. We were very rapid in initiating unilateral sanctions and then helping to mobilize international sanctions against the Qaddafi regime. We froze assets that Qaddafi might have used to further empower himself and purchase weapons or hire mercenaries that might be directed against the Libyan people.
“So there are a whole range of policies that we are putting in place that has created one of the most powerful international consensuses around the isolation of Mr. Qaddafi, and we will continue to pursue those. But when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of UN Security Resolution 1973, that specifically talks about humanitarian efforts. And we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate.
“I think it’s also important, since we’re on the topic, that I have consistently emphasized that because we’re working with international partners, after the initial thrust that has disabled Qaddafi’s air defenses, limits his ability to threaten large population centers like Benghazi, that there is going to be a transition taking place in which we have a range of coalition partners—the Europeans, members of the Arab league—who will then be participating in establishing a no-fly zone there.
“And so there is going to be a transition taking place in which we are one of the partners among many who are going to ensure that that no-fly zone is enforced and that the humanitarian protection that needs to be provided continues to be in place.”
In his briefing on Monday, General Ham—who assumed control of the US Africa Command only on March 9—declared that the no-fly zone around Benghazi in eastern Libya would gradually be expanded to cover Libya’s entire coastline, and he declared that the bombing of Qaddafi’s compound near Tripoli was surgical and carefully targeted at command and control systems. He also said that US and other forces engaged in the attack on Libya do not have a mission to support the rebel or opposition forces. “We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces,” he said. “We protect civilians.” But he followed that immediately by noting that since the opposition, even armed, are civilians, the United States will protect them, too. “I suspect some would argue that some within the opposition may be civilians. And if they are attacked by regime forces, then we would be obliged, if we possess the capability, to try to protect them from attack. But we have no mission and no intent to provide close air support to the opposition.”
Under questioning from reporters, though, Ham called it a “hypothetical” to imagine that the armed Libyan opposition might engage in a counteroffensive, say, by moving their forces west toward Tripoli. In that case, the United States would face a choice of whether or not its mission to protect civilians would include protecting heavily armed civilians engaged in a civil war. “We have no mission to support opposition forces if they should engage in offensive operations. And so that's—I guess I would just leave it at that. We protect civilians,” said Ham. He seemed to state clearly that the United States would not feel any obligation to support a counteroffensive by the rebels. “Having seen reports [that] there are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and that have heavy weapons...I would argue, [they] are no longer covered under that protect-civilian clause. So it's a—it's not a clear distinction, because we're not talking about a regular military force. It's a very problematic situation.” He added, specifically, that it’s possible that the end result could be a stalemate in which Qaddafi remains in power.
Then there was this rather bizarre exchange:
“Q: If opposition forces are trying to take back a city that Gadhafi holds, couldn't you argue that they would be attacking civilians; and therefore, would they be targeted as well?
“GENERAL HAM: Again, I'm not crazy about...answering the hypothetical questions. We would have to look at that situation as it was unfolding. We do have a mission to protect civilians. And we would have to make an assessment as that unfolded as to what our actions might be, consistent with 1973 and consistent with our mission.”
It stretches credulity, of course, to imagine that the United States would bomb the opposition if it tried to capture a city.
While Ham emphasized that the US military is not in contact with the opposition forces, the State Department is constantly engaged in exchanges with them, and presumably, so is the CIA. At Monday’s State Department briefing, the spokesman said:
“We continue to maintain contact, to talk to the Libyan opposition. The secretary was in Paris on Saturday. Those communications continue. And we’re also, obviously, in touch with them in Benghazi and elsewhere.... It’s at several different levels, I mean, beginning with the secretary, obviously, and then down to Chris Stevens, who’s working these issues for us, Ambassador Cretz and others within the [Near East Affairs] Bureau.”
Does that include sharing military intelligence? “I’m not going to talk about sharing intelligence with the Libyan opposition.”
On Sunday evening, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, had a long back and forth with reporters on whether rebels and armed civilians are civilians or not. Here’s the exchange:
Q: Is there a difference?
MR. DONILON: Is there a difference between a rebel and a—no, a civilian is a civilian.
Q: But if a rebel is standing in front of Libyan forces, is he to be protected by——
MR. DONILON: Well, the point, though—I mean, the point is pretty clear, though, is that you have a civilian population under attack by regime forces. And I’ve tried to be very clear about what the instructions are. The coalition partners and others under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 are empowered to use all necessary measures to protect civilians from military attack.
Q: So if a civilian with an AK-47 is facing off against Qaddafi forces, is he protected under 1973 and coalition forces?
MR. DONILON: Well, but that's—the focus, the activity of the coalition forces is against the military forces who are attacking civilians. That's the activity. So that's the best I can do.
Q: So the answer is no, civilians who take up arms against Qaddafi’s forces are not protected under 1973?
MR. DONILON: Not protected? No, I don't—well, the civilians who are protecting themselves from the Qaddafi regime, is that the——
Q: They’re fighting the Qaddafi forces, aren't they? Are they——
MR. DONILON: Is that the question?
Q: —protected by coalition forces in 1973?
Q: Doesn’t that mean you’re taking sides on behalf of a military force fighting the Qaddafi regime?
MR. DONILON: We’re taking—this is not unclear either in the resolution, which I’ll reach for here, or in terms of the activities of the coalition forces. The Qaddafi regime was threatening attack and attacking civilians and civilian-populated areas. Those are the two terms in the Security Council resolution. They were under threat of attack, and the goal is to take action to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas from attack by the Qaddafi regime. That's the——
Q: I didn't understand—civilians—do you recognize the rebels as civilians?
MR. DONILON: They are citizens of Libya, and they are civilians.
Q: They are? They are? They are civilians?
MR. DONILON: They're not military forces under the direction and control of Qaddafi.
Q: But they’re military forces——
MR. DONILON: Yes, yes.