Q&A: How effective have the coalition air strikes been?

What is happening on the ground, and what is the international community planning to do?

Brian Brady,Donald Macintyre
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:43

What is the situation on the ground?

Febrile. The rebels now have some semblance of professional military leadership, but it remains to be seen if they can get the pick-up truck fighters to obey orders and stop charging up and down the coastal roads. Gaddafi's forces currently outgun the rebels 10-1, according to US spokesmen.

Is it mere coincidence that air strikes diminished as talks with defectors and others began?

Nato claims the pace of operations is dictated by events on the ground, and that bad weather – mainly sandstorms and clouds – "somewhat restricted" operations after the relief of Benghazi. However, diplomatic sources conceded that the break allowed a pause for anyone considering following Moussa Koussa out of the country.

How effective are air strikes?

Hitting tanks in the open is meat and drink to coalition aircraft, but firing at positions in cities is far more difficult. Misrata, where rebels have been under a pounding attack for many days, is a reminder of this, with Gaddafi's forces too well infiltrated into the city's approaches for aerial attacks.

What has been the impact of Western forces on the Gaddafi side?

Gaddafi's forces have adopted rebel tactics, abandoning heavy armour for pick-up trucks with machine guns mounted on the back. The "battle wagons" are more mobile – and harder to distinguish from rebel vehicles.

The rebels reportedly have an influx of trained fighters – who are these?

Nato's boss in Europe last week confessed that intelligence had traced "flickers" of terrorist activity among the resistance. Western leaders tried to play down the suggestion, partly because Gaddafi claims the same. The Libyan rebel leader said "jihadists" – including al-Qa'ida members – who fought in Iraq are among his forces.

What are the rebels' ceasefire terms?

The rebels insist government troops must leave western cities, Libyans have the right of protest, and Gaddafi must also quit.

What is the Gaddafi administration's response to those?

They described them as "mad".

What is Moussa Koussa saying, and on what terms?

The former foreign minister has given details of Gaddafi's state of mind and likely next moves. There were reports last night he has been offered asylum in return for his help. Prosecutors and Dumfries and Galloway Police hold talks with the Foreign Office tomorrow about Mr Koussa and the Lockerbie bombing. Ministers side-stepped questions on whether he has been offered immunity, and asylum would certainly not give him such protection.

Who else is Britain talking to?

Mohammed Ismail, a Libyan government aide who, say reports, "happened to be in London visiting relatives". No details emerged.

Is political grandstanding getting in the way of a resolution?

Turkey says it was talking about political exile for Gaddafi and his henchmen but this was stopped by talk of them being hauled before courts on war-crimes charges.

What about psychological warfare?

All pretty obvious stuff. There's nothing subtle about the rumours of regime collapse, defections that haven't happened, and reports about feelers being put out by Tripoli on where Gaddafi might hang his hat if he fled. The effect of Libyan state TV's continuous showing of alleged atrocities by rebel forces shouldn't be underestimated. On the night of Moussa Koussa's defection the station showed especially grisly footage of rebels apparently cutting up the corpse of a dead Libyan soldier.

What did the London conference of interested parties on Libya produce?

The conference was more about strengthening the coalition, and upping the pressure on Gaddafi, than forcing further action. It sanctioned the existing strategy and laid the basis for further humanitarian work and the potential shape of Libya after the Nato action.

Are boots on the ground the only viable solution?

If Nato wants an obstinate Gaddafi removed, only the most direct action may achieve that. The former Nato chief George Robertson said international troops could be needed if air strikes don't halt the attacks on civilians. But he urged Europe to take the lead as the US wouldn't plug the gaps.

What is the mood in Tripoli?

The best way to describe it is one of edginess or fear. Partly fear of the bombings, of course, but for many, apart from the vociferous and visible hardcore of paid or fanatic Gaddafi supporters and armed militias, there is a fear of speaking out and, for those inclined to do so, fear of demonstrating. Many Tripolitans are feeling the pressure of shortages or price rises – of fuel because of sanctions, and of bread because Egyptian bakers have fled. Many shops have shut and the dinar has fallen steadily against the dollar.

Where is Gaddafi?

Not sighted since 22 March – and that was on television. The common assumption is his Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli where he said he is staying "in my tent" and where he may have an underground bunker, but that can't be verified. Especially as subsequent communications have been in statements to Libyan state TV that do not show him. One bizarre sequence showed a car that viewers were told contained the leader, buthe himself was not shown.

Diplomacy: Where the coalition stands on the conflict

United States With resolve sapped by two existing wars, President Obama was a late covert to the no-fly zone policy, cautious of becoming too deeply involved in the campaign. Refused to lead the action and stressed his commitment was limited in duration and scope. Unlikely to offer significant support to an escalation into a ground conflict.

United Kingdom David Cameron has been a keen proponent of action against Gaddafi for several weeks, and an early supporter of the no-fly zone concept to protect civilians from government forces. Still remains vague over regime change and arming rebels, although his Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, yesterday suggested the UK could legitimately train them.

France President Sarkozy gleefully filled the vacuum left by the reticence of other powers, with an aggressive stance in favour of intervention. France, with the largest Muslim population in the EU, faces Libya across the Mediterranean – and he stands for re-election next year. Personal investment makes support for further action more likely.

Italy Relations are complicated by Italy's reliance on its former colony for energy, by its being Libya's closest European neighbour – and by the recently feting of Gaddafi by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Italy backed Resolution 1973, saying: "We are not making war, but preventing it." Might struggle to move beyond the current commitment.

Arab League Crucial to legitimising the UN resolution, at a summit days before the vote, but continued support is not guaranteed. The League's chief, Amr Moussa, sparked anxiety and frenzied briefing when he claimed the bombing exceeded the resolution's authority. Arab League backing would be critical for any extension of the UN mandate in Libya.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments