The situation in Libya is becoming more complex every day. Over the last few weeks, questions regarding political and military leadership of the operations persisted and many asked whether France will take command or whether North American and European allies will accept a NATO command, which is what has in the end taken place. However, it is imperative that Arab states become increasingly active in Libya.
The air campaign currently taking effect might not be enough. Ultimately if Gaddafi is to be removed and for the regime to fall another Security Council resolution calling for land forces might be needed. The rebel group based in Benghazi might gain momentum and take control of the country with the help of Allied air support. However, it is clear that the rebel forces are not a trained or modern military. Preferably they would be furnished with advisors to help the opposition to develop the capability to fight back against Gaddafi. Even with such technical assistance the rebels might not be able to take Tripoli. Thus, the other scenario is for neighboring states to work in conjunction with the rebels and the North American and European air support by providing ground forces. The Arab League could sponsor such an effort led by Egypt, which would undoubtedly be a positive precedent in the region. It would give the image that Arab countries are greatly concerned in defending human rights and, in the case of certain countries, preserving the ideals of their revolutions.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was tabled by the UK, France and Lebanon. This came shortly after the Arab League and the Gulf Security Council supported the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya. The West, referring to European and North American leaders, constantly refer to the need for Arab involvement in the operations taking place. However, so far the Arab response has been minimal. Qatar has sent four fighter jets and the UAE has agreed to send twelve jets in an effort to help enforce the no-fly zone.
President Obama has declared his desire for Arab states to have a greater deal of involvement. The West, including NATO, has on numerous occasions stated that they will not act militarily without support from the region. In a recent statement, Secretary General Rasmussen stated, “We will cooperate with out partners and welcome their contributions”. The situation in Libya is serious and NATO, with all of its capacity, can only provide a temporary security blanket. The EU can only support the Libyan people with soft power. For long term and sustainable solutions a reliable regional partner is required. It is the time the Arab states assume a leadership role and assist in instilling peace and security in Libya.
It is difficult to believe that only Qatar and the UAE are giving military support to the mission in Libya, mainly due to the great distance between the two Gulf countries and Northern Africa. It is the responsibility of North African states to respond to the Libyan crisis. Libya is a direct neighbor of Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. None of these countries, which are all experiencing some sort of unrest or transitions at the moment, are interested in the prospect of a civil war in a bordering country. Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco do not want a prolonged conflict in Libya. This would only trigger a refugee crisis that could see scores of people rushing into North African countries that already struggle in providing for their own people. Recently, President Obama reaffirmed this belief, as he stated that refugees from Libya would put “enormous strains on the peaceful, yet fragile transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.”
Egypt especially has a responsibility to act. Of course, Egypt is undergoing a delicate transition in which domestic problems are of the utmost importance and priority. However Egypt has the military might to play a significant role and to be a leader in resolving the crisis. They receive around $1.3 billion per year in military aid from the US and they spend around 3.4% of their GDP on their military, which is comprised of around 450,000 personnel. And, as proven by the events of the Egyptian Revolution, they certainly have an advanced and well-disciplined military as well.
The Libyan crisis represents an incredible opportunity for Egypt to regain their former title of regional hegemon. Egypt would once again be a leader in the entire Arab world. As the wave of democratic protests are sweeping the region, Egypt could play the new role of protecting these reform minded revolts and helping pave the way for a new Middle East no longer made up of authoritarian regimes that have ruled for decades. And as President Obama stated, if the Gaddafi regime were to emerge victorious, the “democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship.”
Egypt, along with other Arab states, has the responsibility to act in order to preserve the nature of the Arab Spring. If Western land forces were to deploy onto Libyan soil the repercussions would be extremely negative. It would be seen as another Western war in an Arab, oil-producing country. The 2003 Iraq War is still fresh in the minds of people in the Middle East, and another comparable situation would not improve the image of the West in the region. The air campaign mandated by the UN Security Council is not an occupying force or viewed as a belligerent Western ‘invasion’. However, the mere scene of Western soldiers in Libya would change the nature of this conflict. Arab states are thus essential in providing military support to operations. This conflict is an opportunity for Arab states and in particular the Arab League to take full control of their region, politically and militarily. If Arab states take a strong stance against Gaddafi and send military forces against him, they will set the precedent of taking care of their own problems, thus strengthening their regional bloc. Arab populations have already taken the steps towards assuming responsibility of their own affairs. Can Arab states do less?
Miguel de Corral is a Research Assistant in the Middle East Faculty of the NATO Defense College in Rome and studies International Affairs at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are his own.