Defense Secretary Robert Gates and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley aren’t so eager to stop Moammar Gadhafi’s aircraft from attacking Libyan rebels. But not only is NATO still considering a no-fly zone over Libya, it’s placing its eyes in the sky over the country, around the clock. And there are a range of other steps under consideration to aid the anti-Gadhafi forces — maybe, just maybe, including giving them weapons from Saudi Arabia.
A Monday meeting of the NATO council still hasn’t yielded firm steps to establish a no-fly zone, U.S. Ambassador Ivo Daalder told reporters on Monday. But Daalder said that “towards the end of the week,” NATO would be “in a position to know what it would take to do a no-fly zone. Britain and France are already on board: they’re preparing a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the imposition of a no-fly, though veto-holding Russia signaled its opposition.
But even without a resolution, Daalder announced that NATO decided to step up surveillance flights of AWACS planes over the Mediterranean to 24 hours a day, “to have a better picture of what’s really going on in this part of the world.” (NATO’s got its own AWACS aircraft, so it wouldn’t require sending additional U.S. planes.) With the powerful radar aboard AWACS near or over Libya, NATO could conceivably coordinate an air campaign, keep tabs on where Libyan planes are, and monitor movements of pro-Gadhafi forces and weaponry on the ground.
Daalder cautioned that a no-fly zone is no panacea. It would have “a limited effect” on Gadhafi’s helicopters and ground forces. But the dictator subjected rebel strongholds in the east, like Ras Lanuf, to what the New York Times called “steady attacks from the air,” with planes “swooping low” to bomb rebel positions around the town’s oil refinery.
At the least, the use of surveillance planes underscores that “international justice has a long reach and a long memory,” as British Prime Minister David Cameron has put it. It’s also an implicit test of a theory —supported within the Pentagon’s policy shop — that military assets like spy planes or jammers can make a big difference in humanitarian catastrophes without putting U.S. troops at risk. But it’s worth noting that the AWACS planes have already been flying for ten hours a day near Libyan airspace, and the violence has only accelerated.
But there are also more coercive measures reportedly under consideration. Like giving the rebels their own guns to fight off Gadhafi’s forces.
According to the Independent’s Robert Fisk, the U.S. secretly asked Saudi Arabia to ship the Libyan rebels ground-to-air missiles, anti-tank rockets and mortars. The idea is to enable the rebels to bring down Gadhafi’s aircraft themselves, alleviating the pressure on international forces to do the job for them — and keeping U.S. planes out of the reach of Libyan air defenses. That would echo the caution that Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen recently sounded against viewing a no-fly zone as a bloodless affair.
Saudi Arabia acted as the U.S.’ arms courier during the Afghan insurgency of the 1980s. But State Department spokesman Mark Toner called Fisk’s piece “inaccurate,” without further specification. Still, NBC’s Richard Engel tweets today that a U.S. official told him “saudi arming some rebels to counter al-qaeda influence.” And without confirming the story, White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that “providing weapons” is “one of the range of options that is being considered,” though he said it would be “premature to send a bunch of weapons to a post office box in eastern Libya.”
And how: a British special forces mission to liaise with the Libyan rebels turned into a farce over the weekend, with anti-Gadhafi fighters actually detaining the Brits after mistaking them for mercenaries hired by the regime. Perhaps the stepped-up AWACS flights can also clear up that kind of confusion.