All Confused On the Western Front: NATO and Libya’s Rebels Don’t Jibe

By Steven Sotloff for TIME

“Where is NATO?” the rebel asks, with no small amount of frustration. It is just after midnight, Friday, June 17, and he is holed up in Dafniyah, a hamlet west of the revolutionary enclave of Misratah on the coast of western Libya. Like all the fighters in the dry fields outside the rebel city, Ashrf Ali, 30, had anticipated that the military alliance would launch a bombing campaign in the early hours of the morning last Friday, hitting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s troops to allow the rebels to push further inland. Instead, NATO planes have merely buzzed the sky in routine reconnaissance and patrol sorties, leaving Ali and his fellow fighters unable to advance.

Throughout parts of Libya under rebel control, people are frustrated with NATO. Between its slow pace of attacks and the errant strikes that have killed rebel fighters, the speculation now is that the Western coalition lacks the resources and resolve to help the rebels topple Gaddafi.

The chief problem plaguing both NATO and the rebels is lack of coordination. Rebel leaders complain that they must jump through hoops to reach NATO officials. Field commanders requesting air strikes and relaying troop movements have no direct communication with the alliance’s military command in the region, much less headquarters in Brussels, which must issue the ultimate orders. Instead, they call their senior officers via satellite phone at a rebel command center in Benghazi. The officers then relay the information to NATO officials in the same building, who only then contact Brussels. The byzantine process squanders valuable time in a war where seconds are precious.

Unable to order airstrikes, rebels in the field are forced to wait for unannounced NATO bombings before they can advance. “I never know what to tell my fighters,” says Sa’adun Zuwayhli, 29, a field commander in Dafniyah, which is how far the rebels have advanced out of Misratah in their excruciatingly slow advance toward Gaddafi’s capital Tripoli. “Advance, retreat, hold — they are all guesses until we see the bombs from NATO,” he laments.

The rebels never know when NATO will fly in to their rescue. During a fierce offensive by Gaddafi’s forces between June 7 and June 10, one that left more than 70 rebel dead under a barrage of long-range Grad rockets, the soldiers of “Free Libya” waited for a NATO counterattack that never materialized. The coalition’s failure to defend the rebels angered their commanders. “NATO is to be blamed for Friday’s deaths,” Misratah’s military council spokesman Ibrahim Bayt al-Mal told journalists. The alliance’s officials have responded to such comments in the past by noting that their mandate extends only to protecting civilians, not toppling Gaddafi.

The lack of direct communication between the two sides has left NATO unable to differentiate between Gaddafi’s forces and rebel fighters, leading to friendly fire incidents in which rebels were attacked. In April, two errant bombings in the rebel-held areas killed at least 20. Last Saturday, NATO mistakenly targeted a rebel convoy in which at least four were injured. The coalition immediately released a statement explaining that “a particularly complex and fluid battle scenario” led it to believe that the rebel column was a Gaddafi battalion because his forces “had recently been operating” in the area. All three attacks occurred in the area between the cities of Ajdabiyah and Brega in eastern Libya.

NATO’s explanation, though, did not satisfy rebel leaders. “We are upset when civilians die,” explained the rebel’s military spokesman in Benghazi Ahmad Bani. Libyans in Misratah were even blunter. “We are fighting against a dictator with advanced weapons. We can’t be fighting NATO as well,” says Khalid Elaas, 39. “They need to figure out how to run this campaign or the people will be burning pictures of NATO leaders next to those of Gaddafi’s.”

NATO’s actions have left Misratah’s rebels not only angry, but puzzled as well. After the military alliance introduced helicopters last week for the first time, it dropped illustrated Arabic leaflets declaring, “NATO forces will take all the steps necessary to destroy the war instruments that threaten civilians.” But instead of reaching their intended targets, the leaflets landed in rebel held positions, leaving the fighters there perplexed.

Confusion is the least of the rebels’ worries. By the time the sun rises on Friday, Ashrf Ali is exasperated, having waited all night for an offensive that never materialized. “If NATO does not get its act together, this war is never going to end,” he complains, as he heads for a nearby canvas tent to get some sleep.

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